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On-line Presence or Dumping Ground?

By Murray Bourne, 14 Mar 2005

Let's make e-learning more about communication between learners and less about posting of content, so we can achieve an on-line presence which is equal to, or even better than, a classroom context.

Most people need a teacher to guide them through their learning, and a classroom context to give structure to that learning. That is, few people are happy to learn things on their own.

Many people feel that e-learning suffers from lack of...

  • the physical presence of the teacher
  • the physical presence of classmates
  • time constraints

With many people, an important part of motivation in a course is to have somone pushing them along to meet assignment and exam deadlines.

For me, the best on-line learning experience has been in forums on the Web. These forums are joined by people who are willing to freely give hours of their time answering other people's questions. I am referring in particular to computer programming forums, where I can post my question on some intricate detail of HTML, Javascript, CSS, PHP or whatever I am working on and within a few hours someone, somewhere replies with a brilliant answer that sorts things out immediately. Sometimes, there is a reply within an hour - there is a real sense of a community of learners who are altruistically giving of themselves. I certainly feel, and appreciate, their on-line presence.

There are several key issues in this:

  • learners come to the forum with burning questions that need solving - often urgently (this concept is often missing from conventional classrooms)
  • learning is seen as "JIT" (just-in-time) by most participants - not linear, like we impose in standard classrooms
  • dependency on teachers and classroom settings is a learned behaviour, that can, and should be unlearned. Don't we want lifelong learners? Don't we want independent learners? Are we going to get that outcome by reinforcing a 'conventional' classroom where teachers talk and students listen (or usually not)?

Too idealistic I hear you ask? My own experience of using e-learning to teach mathematics was that many of the quieter students opened up and communicated a lot more on-line. They asked questions they would not normally ask in class and responded to other students who they would not normally even talk to. They would ask each other questions and some even commented how much 'fun' they found it to be. An issue here is that when we need to type an answer, it gives us time to think through what we want to say. With students who are not comfortable in English, this can make a huge difference.

I believe we can achieve a more successful on-line presence when we stop regarding e-learning as just a place to dump PowerPoint slides and a place to put up a few organisational announcements. We need to move e-learning more towards a dynamic community of learners who freely communicate and away from a PPT dumping ground.

This discussion reminded me of the book, New Tools for Learning by John Davitt. The sub-title for the book is: "Accelerated Learning Meets ICT" (Network Educational Press, 2005).

The main themes are:

  • The physical learning environment is crucial, and IT tools, if used properly, can enhance these spaces
  • Schools are using outdated factory/office/typing pool models for classrooms
  • The use of IT has been mainly text-based and silent, but this is not appropriate for many learning styles
  • Stress reduces learning and IT can be used to reduce the threats in learning by providing scaffolding and support
  • IT is a great way to store and share resources
  • IT provides new ways for students to make connections (create sound file, image file, video file, web page, etc)
  • Education is largely about sharing of stories - and IT can enhance this.

I totally agree with Davitt when he says that ICT won't transform learning if it is being incorporated into a traditional teaching structure, but it will be maximised if it goes hand in hand with new teaching and learning approaches (p21). There is no point in "pushing" IT approaches onto learning experiences if it is thought of in the same way as a "one-way lecture". It's just as boring as the lecture in this case.

Some quotable gems in this book include:

Learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge (Gordon Wells, 1981)

All learners were born with a natural craving for knowledge. [...] Why should learning not start by material presentation rather than by oral explanation? (Comenius, 1649)

Don't teach me, let me learn (Prashnig, 2002)

The latter part of the book gives practical suggestions on the use of IT for story telling and making connections. Some of these include:

  • Make a radio production
  • Build animations
  • Make movies

Do I sense your stress increasing? ("What me, learn all this stuff? I'm flat out learning PPT and Word!") In response, I would like to finish with a last quote, which applies to instructors as well as students:

Stop implementing technology in our schools - it doesn't work, instead let's redefine literacy and implement that. (Warlick, 2004)

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