19 February 02005

What's wrong with e-learning: product and process

My posting yesterday turned into a bit of a rant in places, particularly on the subject of educational games. Today's is part spill-over of that rant, and part explanation of it.

Leaving aside the disingenuous and diffident aspects of smuggling learning under the cloak of 'fun', what I really want to say is that e-learning should leave space for learners (and, where applicable, their tutors) to re-negotiate the learning process as it unfolds. Learning providers should accept the degree to which this entails some loss of control.

The prevailing model in the market for e-learning is to design it as a product rather than a process. What do I mean by this? I mean that the interaction through which people learn is coded into the bits and bytes of the learning material, rather than being formulated as more open-ended activities that allow learners and tutors to improvise and make up their own interactions. E-learning in the guise of games is one example; e-learning that aims to emulate the production values of television is another, following the Video Arts example — as though adding 'celebrity sauce', by hiring a famous face to shoot a sketch or two, makes the learning more enticing and effective.

There are probably several reasons for the current market emphasis. One is that products are an easier sell to an unsophisticated market than a process, which appears to need more management. But the main reason is that e-learning providers (the commissioners and the developers) want the learning — and the costs of learning — to be controllable and predictable. Ideally they'd like to chuck the stuff at their learners and then forget about it, until the qualifications drop out at the other end.

That usually means no interaction — or very constrained, pre-defined interaction — with tutors. The providers can't find, or don't want to rely on, well-trained tutors to facilitate the learning process. They are trying to automate the work of a skilled profession. And I don't care if that makes me sound like a Marxist.

One response to this criticism might be that providers are now exploring ways to make more adaptive and flexible, providing means for increased 'personalisation' to match learners' needs. If learners are in control of the personalisation, that is a step forward. But ultimately the adaptive approach is more of the same: coding more 'intelligence' into the product. In practice, the adaptive features tend not to be as intelligent as their vendors would have you believe. And this isn't a problem that will be solved with incremental developments, because, as with R&D in Artificial Intelligence, the intelligence that can be coded is the wrong kind.

There's a long tradition, going back to theorists like Vygotsky, of seeing learning as a fundamentally social process (see my posting on learning through social relations for more background). Interacting with bytes and code, no matter how slick and clever they are, misses out that social, improvisational element.

So what are the alternatives to the product-focused model?

In the area of informal learning, providers do not have to be so focused on getting learners to a fixed end-point. More or less whatever the learner takes away is fine, and it can be left to them to determine what that is. As an example of how this can work well, with one set of learning resources meeting a range of different interests, I wrote an appreciation of the BBC Sold on Song web resources.

In formal learning the learning process cannot be left entirely under learner control, and has to be guided somehow to ensure the right learning outcomes are achieved. That's what good teaching is about. In the award-winning case of the LeTTOL e-learning course learners work through a number of group activities over several weeks in a 'cohort' that is facilitated by an online tutor. Everyone in the cohort is expected to start and end the course at the same time (within a few days). This gives a different kind of predictability and control to the e-learning providers, and admittedly it does compromise some of the flexibility for learners. But the pay-off is a much richer process of communication, and development of shared understandings, among learners.

In the project I'm currently managing for the TUC, we are broadly following the LeTTOL model in two pilot courses (Union Learning Representatives and Tackling Racism). Tutors come from the Trade Union Studies departments of Further Education colleges, and are trained in online teaching.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Ideas and Essays, Teaching on 19 February 02005 | TrackBack
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