The Hype of E-Learning?

I recently listened to a refreshing session with Steve Weiland presenting for an Athabasca University’s CIDER session. Steve addressed the hype of e-learning from a unique perspective. Like many of us, he has watched the evolution of technology use in education and has embraced it to a degree in his teaching of university courses. Steve named his session “The Case of the Self-Paced Course”. He spoke in a compelling way that was intelligent and thoughtful, and used only 9 presentation slides. Great orator.

As the premise to his presentation, he questioned the overuse of technology in learning and shared his journey through the evolution of e-learning and the theories that followed them. In turn, he tends to use technology less than more in his courses yet attempts to leverage its best qualities for his purposes. For instance, he makes a commitment to put his thoughts into words and develops something similar to an e-book. His writes chapters, similar to online modules, of comments and ideas, which are embedded with links and artwork – he then posts this for students to review. As well, we responds to each student with as many typed words as they provide in their work.

In his use of technology, he is thoughtful of where he places links to external sources so not to disrupt the learners’ engagement with the content, placing most at the bottom of the webpage. Online discussions are voluntary to allow students to work at their own page and the opportunity to post is more apt to attract social learners with some courses have postings and some very few. However, he argues there is interaction between himself and the learner in his lengthy responses. For Steve the conditions of self-paced online learning include the mind at work, the use of alone time, student characteristics, the role of interaction, and student preference. In essence, Steve is more interested in students reading and writing as an exercise. 

For me, he brought back the roots of learning in a refreshing way that did not address technology in a diminutive way. In turn, he uses technology to support his vision of teaching and learning, which he pondered for years. I found this refreshing and almost a relief as I wonder through the erratic world of e-learning and its sexy appeal of movement, interaction, visuals, copious sources, and expansive networks. Like Steve, I try to keep the learning in mind when I design online and blended courses. His style of teaching involves the instructor heavily but for Steve this is his style. Good on him.

Steve ended his session with the following quote:

“He who permits himself to be propelled simply by the momentum of his attained right habits, loses alertness;
he ceases to be on the lookout. With that loss, his goodness drops away from him.”

John Dewey, The Theory of the Moral Life


New MOOC –

Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier are at it again – delivering another freely accessible massive open online course about “Being connected changes learning.” This is my third attempt at joining one of their MOOC and have the following comments:

  • I appreciate all the time they have put into creating the MOOCs and developing a large, international learning community
  • as an independent scholar my world can be lonely pursing self-study – accessing this community is very helpful
  • the line up of speakers is impressive focusing on current and emerging topics on connection, networks and e-learning
  • they have refined the delivery of the MOOC, opportunity for participant input, and provide suggestions for following, interacting and reflecting on the copious amounts of information.  See:
Consider joining this ride and take as much or as little from it as you need. Many people are generously giving to this efforts.
The course homepage:

m_Learning Menu

A recent article on the trials of using mobile learning technologies by Cochrane and Bateman in a New Zealand postsecondary institute provides a menu for educational use. While the study focuses on using m-learning applications in design programs (architectural, landscaping) and the use of imagery and videos, it also provides ideas for more traditional and static programs such as business, English, etc.

The article offers ideas for using technology to add mobility, social networking and visuals to a number of  disciplines, regardless if smart phones, laptops, or other mobile device are used. Learning can take place anywhere and at any time. More important, it allows students to create when ready, in the moment, and with less borders. Creativity requires freedom and support (Herbert Read, 1963).

For instance, the following could be used to connect students whether f2f or online:

  • text messaging announcements and current events (Twitter)
  • capturing images or videos for class projects (smart/cell phones)
  • blogging or video blogging (vlogging) (WordPress)
  • emailing message and resources (lms/institutional email, gmail)
  • data sharing (delicious bookmark tagging)
  • resources sharing (wiki list)
  • voice messages and presentations (smart/cell phones)
  • sharing with collective (linking blogs, slide share, wiki, flickr images, etc. in learning management system)

The Web2.0 tools that are used outside the classroom and online learning management system (LMS) can support the learning and building of a personal learning environments. Bringing the various tools and productions/creations (via uploads or external links) created outside the LMS back into it creates a central repository and meeting place.

It won’t be long before the use of smart phones in learning situations become the norm. Many of the tools mentioned above have applications that work on smart phones. However, as a cautionary note the article suggests learning institutions take steps. First, they suggest to start working with these newer technologies, provide training and support for faculty, and take steps to integrate them into classroom (whether physical or virtual). As well, though younger generations are quite adept to emerging technologies, they need guidance on using them in constructive ways. Taking steps on using these tools with students is necessary as well.

The potential for creative, interactive and innovative types of learning activities and environments is encouraging, and in my experience, refreshing for students. There is a little something for every topic and discipline, thus creating a learning technology menu. Think outside the box, think creatively. Most important, have fun with learning.

Usefulness of online tools

I recently presented some brief ideas on the features of learning technologies that instructors/teachers might want to consider. Click to see slides in slideshare:

Some of these ideas/comments come from my own research and others from the literature and informal sources, such as blogs, along with my experience as a long-time online student. I think, in the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, if we merge the uber cool features of learning technologies with how humans learn (and can possibly learn), we might just come up with interesting methods. Learning has to come first, followed by new ways of engaging and building knowledge. 

The latter concepts are emerging in the field of technology but still need to be questioned, especially through the eyes of a student. That is, in my opinion, much is idealized about what students need via learning, communication, and information technologies. However, as a student who has taken over 30 academic courses online with Canadian universities some suggestions are idealistic. More testing of the ideas are needed and pursued through discussions. Let’s keep thinking, trying, sharing, and discussing. It’s best to play and try out ideas without reservation. Virtual networks are great support for this.

The Future of Online Learning

Stephen Downes (2008 ) in his posting, The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On, recounts the changes in the speed of technology and its processing and storage capacity. As well, technology is more customizable by users. He also stated, “computer programs of the future will be function based, that they will address specific needs, launching and manipulating task based applications on an as needed basis”. He gives an example of a student opening a course that then opens the needed software applications.  

Though technology is evolving people will still use familiar tools and only adopt new ones if it saves time or increases productivity. Designers need to consider this and that technology should be invisible. As well, more is needed to learn than just presenting content. Also text is supplemented with audio and video content, and conversations become more synchronized through web conferencing systems and blogs for example.

Also needed is dialogue, which can be supported by online conferencing, and needed not only to advance knowledge but also to develop skills in communicating with technologies. More so, communities are more robust that effectively maintain their own communication versus being controlled.

Other changes needed to improve higher education in light of new technological changes and ways to communicate and learn:

  • Rethink the notions of cohort and introduce networks to organize learners as a middle ground between groups and individuals
  • Base learning on student needs
  • Consider the loose structure of informal learning where people pursue their own objectives through dialogue with others
  • Consider personal learning environment (PLE) that present learners with resources of their interest, aptitude and educational level
  • Rethink time and scheduled classes and credits calculated by class hours to allow more self-pacing
  • The place of education should not be tied to a delivery system online but include learning activities for mobile technology and outside the classroom in the community
  • Enable versus build communities with tools: Communities of practice via the Internet based on topics of interest; peer-based communities for friends to connect; learning communities grown with diverse members
  • The university degree has weight and will remain; however, it might be best “to recognize educational achievement from a wide range of providers, including testing agencies, as constituting part, or even all, of the degree”
  • Copyright laws and digital rights management inhibit the creation of innovation making non-encumbered products and services more attractive
  • Use a variety of tools for asynchronous and synchronous communication, creating content, collaboration, using audio and video, and that is portable versus one stationary learning platforms
  • Determine the cost and benefits of online learning by considering the expenses but also the reuse of content and resources and increased economies of scale


The new model for education is “where education is practiced in the community as a whole, by individuals studying personal curricula at their own pace, guided and assisted by community facilitators, online instructors and experts around the world.”

The state of e-learning

Tony Bates (2008 ) reflects on the e-learning from the perspective of his travels around the world. He states e-learning is a mode being increasingly used by professors and instructors. He states the enrolment into online learning in the US has increased by 12% over the last 5 years as compared to an average of 2% for overall enrolment. As well, about ¼ of students in postsecondary in the US have taken at less one course that is fully online.

With this evolution, institutions are wondering how best to use technologies in their teaching. As well, two concerns loom over higher education, the return on investing in technologies and investments and the lack of innovation.

He also criticizes that students needs for engaging learning is not being met but rather courses have teachers lagging in technical who tend to overlook 21st century skills and use technology to replicate outdated educational paradigms. While there are pockets of innovators in institutions most times technology is added on to existing programs with no strategic plans to implement it. 

The innovators are using new forms of technology, such as blogs, wikis, and mobile technology to let learners create and share their work. Another area of innovation is open educational resources to increase the wealth of information for students.

Bates claims in that in education “the traditional methods [for] preparation for an industrial society are fast vanishing. We need to use technology as an integral part of our teaching and learning activities to prepare learners for a knowledge-based society” (p.3). Yet, there is a lack of incentive to change in institutions, such as faculty rewards, management train gin, and understanding of current societal needs for information and knowledge.

Horizon Report 2009

The New Media Consortium came out with an updated report on emerging technologies and their impact on teaching and learning within the next 4-5 years. They stated the topics from the first two reports (2007 and 2008) are already happening. The most evolved technology is smart technology that is geo-sensitive by knowing where they are geographically, and context-sensitive to tag and embed meaning considering what the information is about. As well, mobile phones continue to become smarter, too, with new interfaces and third-party applications pushing institutions to provide all information, services and resources for these devices.

A trend specifically impacting education is the move toward collective intelligence on a larger scale. Considering the expansion of networks, information access, and global connections learners was to invert the place of scholarship as they move to control their learning environments and access vast amounts of content.

Considering this, higher education institutions are becoming challenged and dated. They need to consider how the new, younger learner works, and reward innovate teachers. Also, institutions need to teach faculty and students skills to work with new literacies. For example, managing information through personalized digital spaces and tools that help track and retrieve appropriate information, aggregate content, and update information is becoming easier with online applications. Collaborating and presenting/publishing work online is easier to do as well with new tools.