Monday, 30 July 2007

Three (or more) models of e-learning

Some of the confusion about e-learning – and the arguments that people have – stems from comparing apples and oranges. People often fail to recognise that there are different kinds of
e-learning, and I would describe these as different models.

There are at least three different models of e-learning:

First model
Online courses that provide learning solely via the World Wide Web. Or via corporate intranets or networks. This had its origins in computer-based training in the 1980s and has evolved from there, and from video-based learning resources that because interactive CD-ROMs then migrated to online versions.

Second model
Programmes that integrate online learning with offline activities. Sometimes called blended learning, although I’m not keen on the term (but that’ll need to be the subject of another post). This had its origins in open, distance and flexible learning, which mixed self-study, distance tuition, and face-to-face training events before the advent of digital technology integrated these elements better.

Third model
The provision of online learning resources for self-managed learning. Or knowledge management, as some would call it. This had its origins in learning resource centres, or going back further, in libraries. Some call this informal e-learning, but when it’s the basis for an organisation’s continuous professional development offer, it can actually be rather formal.

I can’t claim to have invented this classification – it originates in Professor Martyn Sloman’s excellent book, Training in the Age of the Learner (amazonlink), but every time I think about it, I get to thinking there must be other models. Or if not now, there will be soon.

One possible candidate is Electronic Performance Support, or EPS. This is where instruction is delivered in the workplace, perhaps incorporated into a computerised system that performs a task, or perhaps held by the operative as an electronic form of instruction manual (on a desktop, a laptop, or a handheld). I am wary of falling into the trap of including any old form of technology-assisted information provision as a learning model, but as EPS becomes more commonplace, and more sophisticated, I think it could become the fourth model.

Another possible candidate is the digital classroom. Chalk-and-talk is history – the modern training room equips the trainer and the learners with a battery of digital aids: not just PowerPoint or other presentation software, but touch-sensitive screens and networked terminals, allowing for sharing of audio and video clips and other files. I think I prefer to regard classroom-based learning, however technologically-enhanced, as a distinct approach to learning, but I can see a case for including it as an e-learning model.

Can you think of any other models?

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Why content is not king

The often-used phrase “content is king” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of e-learning.

Some software developers and vendors tend to emphasise the technology as the defining characteristic of e-learning, and therefore the most important component. This is natural, as it is self-interest. But it’s not the whole picture.

Others slyly suggest their technology is subordinate to the content. This aims to flatter the client, and to divert criticism of enabling software, but it exposes the limits of their understanding of how learning works.

Learning online is about more than simply automated information. If all software does is manipulate content, then it’s generic software with no special application for learning.

In fact, there are three, interrelated, aspects to e-learning. There’s the technology, there’s content, and there’s learning design. Some prefer the term ‘pedagogy’. Not me. And I’m not going to get into a debate about whether ‘andragogy’ is better. ‘Learning design’ is good, plain English.

If we think of the three aspects as cogs in a machine, we can see that they move each other, and help create a greater whole.
For learning to work, it needs to engage the learner, and involve him or her in as active a way as possible. Simple reading or viewing alone can do this, provided the reader or viewer has a good imagination and is well-motivated to begin with. But interactivity helps a lot. The key is to design a learning experience, not just some interesting reading or viewing.

As Elliott Masie says, "if we don't focus on the experience dimension of learning, we run the risk of mistaking the publishing of information for learning and training".

Successful e-learning is a combination of technology that works, meaningful content, and effective learning design. All three are important; none of them is ‘king’.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

An approach, not a method

What do I mean when I describe e-learning as an approach, rather than a method?

In my 2001 book, A Guide to Management Development Techniques, I excluded a variety of stuff, including action-centred leadership, neuro-linguistic programming, Coverdale training, knowledge management, and emotional intelligence, which I characterised as concepts, approaches or systems rather than techniques.

(From the OED, ‘methods’, ‘techniques’ and ‘procedures’ are more-or-less synonymous.)

An approach is a more general term, a way of dealing with things, which may encompass one or more methods. This may sound like hair-splitting, but take a concrete example.

Classroom-based education or training isn’t a method. Lectures, discussion groups, audio-visual presentations, question-and-answer sessions, these are all methods used in the classroom. But the aggregate of these methods is an approach.

So there are a number of approaches to learning, including classroom-based learning, work-based (or on-the-job) learning, and e-learning. There is some cross-over among these approaches, and sometimes they may be combined, but there are still recognisably distinct categories.

E-learning is an approach that includes many methods, such as online courses, e-assessment, Webinars (or virtual tutorials), e-reading, online libraries of learning resources, Web-based discussion forums, tuition by email, etc.

If you revisit my definition of e-learning in yesterday’s post, I hope it now makes a bit more sense.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

definitions of e-learning

Most British dictionaries don’t offer a definition of e-learning; the only exception I’ve found is the Collins dictionary, which calls it a “computer-based teaching system”. Where to begin with this! I can just about live with e- being translated to “computer-based”, but in what sort of world is teaching the same thing as learning?

American dictionaries may be different – I haven’t seen any, but the discussion page on e-learning in Wikipedia refers to Webster’s etymology of e-learning (which, as an interesting aside, dates the first use of the term to 1997).

Wiktionary offers this: “learning conducted via electronic media, especially via the Internet”. This, I would argue, is a limiting vision. My problem with this way of discussing e-learning is that it equates it with online learning, and thus misses out on a lot of the potential.

The CIPD definition is “learning that is delivered, enabled or mediated using electronic technology for the explicit purpose of training in organisations”. This is better. The last bit is daft, as it suggests e-learning for purposes other than “training in organisations” is something else, which it clearly isn’t. But I like the first bit, because it takes a broad view of the use of technology, and doesn’t regard it as the be-all-and-end-all of learning.

Try a Google search for e-learning definition – you’ll be amazed at the variety of answers. It’s easy to spot the ones from techies who don’t understand learning, but there’s an incredible diversity beyond that.

So here’s my definition.

E-learning is an approach to learning and development: a collection of tools and techniques utilising digital technologies, which enable, distribute and enhance learning.

I’d love to shorten it. I’d love to have one snappy phrase that would work for dictionaries as well as learning and development professionals. But so far, I haven’t worked out how to do that.

In my next post, I’ll look at what I mean by an approach.

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