Do you read me Cafelattia?

April 29, 2005

Some people are on another planet when it comes to e-learning, Olga Wojtas discovers

Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning at Leicester University, wants to know what planet you’re from. Different groups within institutions have such contrasting attitudes to e-learning that they can be as incomprehensible to one another as men (well known to be from Mars) can be from women (who are, of course, from Venus).

Salmon outlined the different worlds of online learning in a keynote address to Abu Dhabi’s third biennial conference on E-ducation without Borders in February. She asked participants which planet they preferred: Contenteous, Instantia, Nomadict or Cafelattia.

On Contenteous, information is passed from experts to large numbers of novices through technology. This planet is attractive to many senior managers, who see it as more efficient and economic than traditional teaching. Rather than learning through lectures and questions, students sit frequent tests and get speedy feedback to guide their learning.

Many teachers seem to like Instantia, which offers computer-based courses to students at desks at their work or in learning centres. Staff can customise learning objects to ensure that they are tailored to a topic, and learning and assessment are always linked to specific work or professional needs.

Nomadict is the home of the institutional “techie”, whose prime focus is on keeping people connected rather than on providing learning. Here, students can learn at any time, in any place, through wireless technology and personal communications systems.

On Cafelattia, technology is used to exchange ideas so as to stimulate learners to work with one another rather than wait to have learning delivered to them. This is a world in which knowledge and information are not the sole preserve of academics.

Salmon said she inhabited Cafelattia, as did many other academics who did not believe that knowledge could be completely codified for downloading. “It has to be dynamic, and that is why people want to keep some face-to-face teaching,” she said.

It is rare for people to spend all their time on one planet, she acknowledged, and institutions have developed and applied combinations of various approaches. But she said that trying to accommodate all four was misguided and costly. Institutions had to decide which planet suited their strengths. A university with a beautiful campus had no place on Nomadict, while an elite research institution was unlikely to make Cafelattia its only home.

“It’s horses for courses, planets for purposes,” she said. “You have to show people the choices to be made against the benefits for learning and match these with what you’re trying to achieve rather than saying ‘Look at the technology, let’s deliver something,’ and getting pretty damn cross when people don’t want it.”

Differences in outlook were evident at the conference, which attracted more than 1,000 students from across the world. At a seminar on e-learning effectiveness, Kieran Linehan, a student from University College Cork, said that using Blackboard, UCC’s main e-learning medium, appeared to have led to more students skipping lectures. As lecturers commonly posted notes on Blackboard, some students seem to rely solely on them. That may not be wise. Research focusing on arts students by Ann Kirby and Brendan McElroy, economists at UCC, has found that those who missed lectures got significantly lower marks than those who attended. “Lecture attendance has a positive effect on grades,” Linehan said.

But the session’s moderator, Charles Wankel, professor of management at St John’s University, New York, said masters students at Duke University who studied entirely online could command much higher salaries than their peers who studied on campus. Twenty-first century companies wanted employees to interact by computer, and an online degree confirmed that a graduate had the skills needed by global organisations.

Brad Beach, manager of the i-learning support team at Australia’s Central Gippsland Institute of Technical and Further Education (GippsTAFE), said Contenteous and Instantia-style online learning worked well in training for industry, in effect replacing the textbook sent through the post with a self-paced interactive course. “What students would normally do in a day of face-to-face training can be done in about an hour,” he said.

Because the learning was often tied to contracts or performance reviews, students saw its immediate relevance, he said. Many students wanted education for a specific goal and were uninterested in a course’s social side. Research at GippsTAFE has found that 90 per cent of such highly motivated students successfully completed courses taught solely online. But only 20 per cent of adult learners, those planning to return to the workforce and students without a clear goal finished such courses.

“My belief is that self-paced distance learning is fundamentally flawed for the majority of people,” he said. “They are put off by the isolation and the lack of direction.”

Beach said many online tutors from Contenteous did not teach. They simply presented work to be done and asked students to email them if they had problems. “That’s difficult for [these] learners to do. It’s intimidating enough without having to contact someone you see as an authority figure but do not know and have never met.”

He described the Cafelattia model as traditional teaching online: the driver was not the course content but the teacher or moderator. Their aim was to build a relationship with students, to encourage them to learn and to help them to forge links with other students so they could support one another.

Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Education and Scientific Research for the United Arab Emirates, said he saw learning flourishing on Cafelattia rather than on Contenteous. The danger in the past, he said, was that students had accepted what lecturers said as “divine words”. Technology had broken universities’ monopoly on learning.

“Now students see that there are different opinions and that nobody has control of knowledge, nobody is totally correct. They are responsible for their own learning. Information technology enriches the human mind and makes us more mature.”

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