According to recent research findings, e-learning has reached the point in the Australian Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector where it has tipped over into the mainstream with 50% of employers and 51% of Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) saying they use some online learning activities with learners. 90% of trainees say they want it.
Yet for the past four surveys, practitioners are rapidly losing confidence in the ability of e-learning to improve learning outcomes for students. Between the years 2009 and 2010, the number of practitioners who felt e-learning was improving educational outcomes dropped from 56% to 46%. What’s going on?
My immediate thought was that like the internet of the late 1990s, people jumped in without much planning or support just to be part of things. In the late 90s, the easier and faster it became to author a web site – the faster sites were slapped up and the more people started complaining that they didn’t work. They focused on the output – a web site – rather than the reason for having one – and dismissed expertise – ANYONE can build a web site.
I confirmed that this suspicion was likely by pondering where I’d see this connection between technology reaching a high in use and a low in opinion. It was Gartner’s Hype Cycle. Garter Group is an international technology research firm and their hype cycle identifies five phases that technologies move through from inception through to mainstream adoption.
When a technology is first introduced, the excitement about its possibilities runs high and early successes drive adoption in what is, for some, a mad rush to keep up.
As time passes, impatience for results coupled with lack of preparation inevitably lead to disappointment. However, if a technology does have value, early adopters that press on will build up a body of good practice that is all the stronger for realistic identification of the barriers and risks.
This climb up the Slope of Enlightenment will eventually bring the technology into the mainstream where it can be used productively.
So, if this is applicable to e-learning, what happened?
Teaching machine syndrome
When doing research into behaviourist learning theory for my post grad study into e-learning, I came across BF Skinner’s teaching machine and the concept of programmed instruction. Give ’em info, give ’em a quiz with feedback, rinse and repeat. In the course of searching for more detail, I saw an interesting pattern. In the late 90s and into the early 2000s, the terms teaching machine, computer-based training and e-learning were used interchangeably by some writers and journals. Is it possible, given that at least some portion of our qualifications related to technology become obsolete before we finish, that the concept of e-learning was, for some, set to consist of provide info, quiz, repeat?
Lack of ongoing resourcing
Innovation for many non-commercial (and many commercial) entities is the last thing to get funding and the first thing to go in the name of efficiency and budgeting. The number of people who have told me e-learning funding has been cut because the powers that be (PTB) have decided that “we need to focus on our core business” is overwhelming.
Innovative thinkers may get funding for A project via some national or state fund, but when the project is over – the funds are gone, the time allocated is re-absorbed and a few web site links and the occasional video are all that remain. Of course, some innovative research is lost when agencies merge or funding for the web sites that hosted the information in the first place goes and the sites close down. And if the results and recommendations aren’t to a government’s liking? They will disappear faster than you could say a made-up word like sictas.
To succeed, innovations projects need thought leaders who aren’t having to fight for resources and wage battles with the people who are supposed to be supporting them. They should be given time to research and make thoughtful recommendations, then be teamed with the support they need to make things happen and have continuous improvement and professional development built into the process.
That this isn’t the norm is reflected in the “pockets of excellence” that typify e-learning.
I used to hear from business people in the late 90s and early 2000s that web sites weren’t brain surgery and they’d just have their secretaries do it. I used to joke in reply that sure, anyone could build a web site just like anyone could be a brain surgeon. After all, it’s easy enough to crack open someone’s head, find a brain and take out a piece of it. The questions to ask are: is it the right piece of brain and will the patient live?
What’s going to pull the VET sector out of the trough of disillusionment?
I think we need to get away from the notion of BEST practice and focus, instead, on good practice. BEST indicates that all other ways are inferior and that if one follows the recipe as presented, one will get the same outcome. I think this is utter rubbish. I don’t know much about the learners you work with, but I’ll bet they are different than mine. I’ll bet you have a different style in presenting, a different approach to teaching and interacting with learners and use different assessment tools, if at all.
To me, (and yes, this is a bit oversimplified) the difference between BEST and Good is that Best Practice says this is THE way and the focus is on how you can replicate what was done. Good practice indicates there might be other ways of doing things – so the focus is on WHY it was done this way.
There is too much pressure in BEST practice. You have to replicate mindset, infrastructure and students. It gives naysayers too many buts to sit on – but OUR learners aren’t like them, but OUR internet connection wouldn’t allow that.
With GOOD practice, you need to justify. Explain the learning theory and pedagogy that underpinned your decisions and choices. Consider the tools that made sense and why for your unique situation. Focusing on the decision making process without making it formulaic is so much more empowering than laying down “Thou shalts”.
Good teaching isn’t easy
Most people can buy and use a brush, paint and canvas. This has been the case for at least 100 years. Not everyone is an artist. Why not? Because art often takes a combination of talent and learned abilities. Just as in the face to face realm, good teaching online takes a combination of talent, knowledge and learned abilities. Moodle comes free with $5 hosting services. Because anyone can press a button and set one up it doesn’t mean that anyone can be a teacher.
If people are disillusioned with e-learning, it’s time for them to consider if they’re applying all their knowledge, talent and skill to the online environment.
I wrote a more formal version of this for a recent paper, looking at different schools of learning theory – behaviourist, cognitive and constructivist – and applying them to decisions made in e-learning design. I came up with a cheeky conclusion tying poor implementation and lack of preparation to the trough of disillusionment that I didn’t include there but I will in this article:
Just because the screwdriver you’re using is doing a lousy job banging a nail into a piece of wood is no reason to throw it out…