Facing a byte-sized future

October 22, 2004

E-learning has taken an unexpected turn. It has not, as promised, replaced campus-based learning, but it has pioneered a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to teaching and studying. Martin Weller explains

The demise of the UK e-University, the Government’s £62 million attempt to create an online university to promote e-learning content to a global audience, has been the cause of much reflection and debate. It is possible to draw any conclusion you wish from such an event, and the Schadenfreude of e-learning’s detractors has been barely concealed.

But nearly all British universities have invested in developing a virtual learning environment (VLE) and have proclaimed that e-learning is an vital part of their strategy. So what is the state of e-learning in the UK?

Contrary to some forecasts, it has not fundamentally changed the nature of higher education - most students still go to universities with physical campuses, and the lecture is still the dominant form of educational experience.

The impact of e-learning has been more subtle than many predicted. Most VLEs are aimed at supporting the campus lecturer, making it easy to upload lecture notes and conduct asynchronous discussion. They do not encourage much change in pedagogy or behaviour: uploading lecture notes or PowerPoint presentations does not make a meaningful e-learning experience, so the initial impact has not been great.

However, like many successful technologies, e-learning has been growing by stealth. Naturally, many students have experience of using web technologies such as instant messaging before they come to university, but that does not necessarily mean they expect lecturers to use them as an integral part of delivering education.

It does mean that students will use them, though - and this generates an alternative dialogue and set of resources that influence the type of education they receive, much in the way web-savvy patients have an input into the medical care they receive.

Similarly, as some lecturers begin to use VLEs and technologies in innovative ways - and come to realise how these can enhance their teaching - pressure for other courses to offer similar facilities, for example weekly, live chat drop-in sessions, will emerge.

In addition to the demands created by internal forces, a number of external developments are influencing the direction of e-learning. The most significant is the move towards interoperability of content, student data and technologies. Content providers have realised that e-learning materials are not cheap to produce, and so the desire to share and reuse content has grown. This has led to the notion of learning objects - autonomous digital chunks of content described according to standards and shared through repositories. That students as well as academic staff can access these creates a demand for up-to-date content and offers access to a wider range of perspectives.

Similarly, adopting common standards allows student information to be exchanged by institutions, so that the barriers between institutions become more permeable and learning is an activity that occurs throughout individuals’ lives.

The interoperability of technology is still in its infancy, but the notion is that creating standard forms of passing data between applications can help build a “pick-and-mix” architecture. Instead of the one-size-fits-all VLE approach, specialised tools can be incorporated into an overarching system.

These internal and external forces are beginning to have a
significant effect in shaping the nature of higher education. Like a steady trickle of water over a rock, any single drop is insignificant, but the cumulative effect of many drops is meaningful.

Perhaps this is where the UK e-University went wrong. It opted for the big-bang approach, but a society’s adoption and assimilation of technology tends to follow longer, unexpected paths. Now that the initial hype has subsided, the next pragmatically oriented generation of e-learning can commence.

Martin Weller is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Educational Technology, Open University.

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