E-learning (dis)traction

I think the start of my teaching career coincided with the rise of the VLE. Early on, I remember being told about these new learning environments and the array of tools that would help student learning. Encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to upload material and use the institution’s expensive new toy, many lecturers complied and uploaded course materials, support papers, practice questions and so on. In this ideal world, the students couldn’t have had more learning resources at their fingertips. Learning was going to happen.

In reality, this has not been the case. The DRHEA e-learning audit (2009) reveals some disappointing figures across the Dublin region. Students regularly log into their VLE, but mostly access it to access course materials (lecture notes). This makes VLEs a very expensive version of Dropbox or other online repository.

This is also reflected in the UK. In my own subject (chemistry) and in physics, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre review of student learning experience showed that e-learning came bottom of the pile when students were asked to say which teaching method was most effective and most enjoyable.

A Distraction

For most lecturers, e-learning is not part of their day to day practice, perhaps because of lack of confidence, probably because of lack of awareness. Mention e-learning, and the discussion quickly moves to whether to use PowerPoint and whether those notes should go online.There may also be subtle fears of replacement – that if learning can happen online, perhaps it can happen without lecturers at all! (Of course, anyone who has taught online knows the truth here!). And as the DRHEA survey shows, if academics engage with the VLE, it tends to be in the form of mimicking what they do in lectures, rather than supporting what is done in lectures.

Institutions, bless them, are concerned with e-learning from a perspective of usage and branding – how does their toy compare with next door. There have also been subtle and not so subtle undertones about how e-learning can provide cost-savings in the future, which is a naive viewpoint. Institutions need to be protected from themselves. If, as a community, we don’t consider valuable uses for incorporating into our practice, institutions will want to fill the vacuum, just as was done previously with pushing content online. Lecture capture, a spectacular waste of tax-payers money, is looming large and is already catching on in the UK. It looks good, makes for good PR and students “love” it. The fact that there is little or no evidence to show that it helps with learning is disregarded. As a community of educators, we should be concerned about this “innovation” being pushed on us [I recommend reading this for a fuller discussion of lecture capture]

Students, well bless them too. Students are clever, articulate, funny and they are our future. But they are also sometimes a bit stupid. Students will always want more – more notes online, more resources, more quizzes, self-study questions, more more and more! In the relaxed days several months before exams, they mean well and plan to engage with all of this material. But all the evidence points to the fact that students rarely engage with the material until it is too late, just before exams. At this stage, they find the nature of the content, often not even re-purposed for an online environment (substitution of what they have rather than supplemental to help them understand what they have), useless for their learning.

Finally, we have my very good friends, the learning development officers, who try various strategies, sometimes against all the odds, to assist lecturers in incorporating e-learning into their teaching. Locally, their help has been of great value to me, but reading about e-learning on blogs and on The Twitter Machine, there is a sense that the ideas and conversations within the learning development community does not reflect what is happening on the ground. There is perhaps a false sense of advancement, buffered from the great unwashed of PowerPoint debaters by early adopters and innovations in the literature. This can lead to a disconnect in language – acronyms, gadgets and tech jargon which results in the lack of confidence among lecturers who may wish to change. The term “learning technologist” does not help, as it immediately imposes a (false) divide between learning and e-learning.

Gaining traction?

So, what to do? The high participation rates in VLEs indicate that this is a place where learning opportunities can be provided. Students are hungry to engage, if material is there. One of my favourite authors in the literature on e-learning for practitioners is Gilly Salmon (Gill-e-Salmon?). A core component of her approach is for practitioners to ask themselves: “What is the pedagogic rationale for implementing any proposed change?“. I think¬† this is a very powerful position – it speaks in language all perspectives can understand, or at least appreciate (institutions I am looking at you). Lecturers, identifying problems or issues in some teaching practices can consider how to integrate a change, perhaps harnessing technology, into their teaching. Because there is a need; an underlying rationale even; the implementation has a value and a role to play in the module delivery. Lecturers may refer to it, and better still integrate it into their class work. Students are now presented with specific, often bespoke learning materials with specific purpose of supporting their learning at a particular stage of their learning in the module. Instead of just representing lecture information all over again, there is a reason at particular stages in the module, to interact with these reasons – they have a value. Learning development officers can offer their considerable expertise in supporting lecturers in developing the resources, so that they are fit for a purpose. And institutions are happy because students are happy and access statistics look good. In our own work here at DIT, we have enjoyed some success at the micro-level employing this approach – moving away from mass content upload (“shovelware”) towards specific learning resources tailored for and incorporated into specific modules. It takes time and is harder work, but the value of what is produced is greater for all.

Now, I feel better after that.

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