E-learning's big questions remain

October 19, 2001

Rapidly maturing online learning has delivered effective and user sensitive environments, an audience of academics, journalists and students at the Royal Institution heard last Thursday.

Most participants agreed that the quality of e-learning was high, but the question of whether technology can solve the problems of education was largely unanswered. The debate was chaired by the BBC's John Humphries and sponsored by e-learning company Boxmind.

The speakers emphasised benefits of internet learning - that it was cost-effective, widened participation globally, empowered the student and transformed the academic - although many in the audience appeared sceptical.

Richard Dawkins, fellow of New College, Oxford, and professor of the public understanding of science, welcomed the development of "granularity" in online learning, which would speed the evolution of the supertutor.

"In the world of e-learning, the tutor becomes ever more important. We will need more and more skilled educators in this medium."

Granular e-learning elements, the finer the better, would be manipulated to produce a desired outcome in a collaboration between institutions, tutors and students, he said.

The desired outcome for Susan Blackmore, who has just left the University of West of the England, where she was a reader in psychology, was more focused on ethics and morality in young people. "Within 99 years, the hardware and software on the web will be self-maintaining and self-repairing. What will be our role? Is it how to educate children to be cyberslaves?" she asked.

Her view is that the prime motivation and goal of educators should be to help children use the internet positively and to understand the ethics embraced by the new technologies.

Despite rapid technological change, the human brain had not changed much over millennia, said Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick. "But we have access to everything that we have learnt over 30,000 years through language, print and the internet." He said there was a tension between intelligence, the brain's mechanics, and "extelligence" - the sum of knowledge being stored and manipulated by technologies.

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