Learning doesn't start with 'e'

September 19, 2003

Content and community is far more important than software in online education, argues Nigel Paine

It was noticeable at this year's e-learning exhibition and conference at the Islington Design Centre that visitor and exhibitor numbers were down compared with previous years. Why?

The answer is simple. Most people are losing interest in online, or e-learning, per se . What is far more interesting is the learning bit. The online element is about delivery, and every provider will have different views about how that should be organised.

The BBC launches its Leadership Programme this week with a substantial online component, but if I were to choose, I would find sitting in a room with people who know about leadership more useful and stimulating in this context than people who are experts in e-learning. There is no such thing as a generic online system that every piece of learning can be slotted into. It may be that we have wasted time and money trying to find the holy grail of a system that works for all programmes, in all circumstances, at all times.

My message is focus on the learning rather than the "e". Get the learning environment right, and the rest will fall into place. Fail to build an appropriate learning environment, and whizzy communications systems are irrelevant. Everyone wants software that works, has a modicum of logic in its operation, and has an intuitive interface - but most does. If the front end that this creates has nothing behind it, learners soon get bored and frustrated.

It would be like assuming that a university course is no more than the sum of its lectures. Lord Perry of Walton, the founding vice-chancellor of the Open University, strived to replicate the undergraduate experience when he built the first BA programmes. There were well-written materials, but these were complemented by tutorials and summer schools, a student newspaper, telephone conferences, day schools and so on. He wanted each OU student to feel part of the institution, and he wanted to develop a complex learning environment where students could flourish.

Delivering content is only part of the story. And we have become far too hung up on content at the expense of learning. Learning involves debate and challenge, shared understandings, the development of a knowledge base among learners and, above all, a sense of belonging to a community.

I want everyone at the BBC to see themselves as not only a teacher and learner, but also a source of business knowledge. At least as important as the 93 online modules in the Leadership Programme is the space where we share good practice, seek help and support from our peers and dip in and out of notes and sketches, ideas and tools that make our role as managers more straightforward. This is the place where each participant keeps in touch with the other 119 members of the cohort and keeps track of their peers' progress through the organisation. The social sharing will be as important as the intellectual partnership, and the one will bolster the other. The online element has had as much attention as the face-to-face workshops.

In a complex, modern organisation, the electronic elements of the programme will keep the whole together, much as email has become the dominant form of internal communication. And we have done this without so much as a breath of the "e" word.

Nigel Paine is head of people development at the BBC and was a keynote speaker at Napier University's e-learning conference this week.

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