The Difference Between Light and Knowledge

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Mike Ditchburn looks at when e-learning is at its most effective and identifies its limitations.

"Someday, in the distant future, our grandchildren's grandchildren will develop a new equivalent of our classrooms - they will spend many hours in front of boxes with fires glowing within. May they have the wisdom to know the difference between light and knowledge." - Plato 428BC - 348BC

I wonder what Plato would have made of what we call e-learning today? Would he be concerned that some e-learning has become commodotised (just another series of entries in the course catalogue) or would he marvel at how we have embraced e-learning in today’s knowledge economy?

Light or knowledge?
So, what makes e-learning effective? Accepting that it is done on-line, e-learning is about bringing learning to the learner rather than taking the learner to the learning. It’s about providing resources, and it works best when those resources are aligned with the learner and the appropriate learning environment.

When we look at e-learning in these terms it helps us see further than just an on-line course (although clearly the on-line transfer of knowledge is an essential component of many e-learning programmes). Whether we call it ‘blended’ or not, formal and informal on-line learning can take a number of formats, for example:

  • A tutor facilitated on-line chat session at a pre-defined stage of a development programme.
  • Real time response to a specific technical query.
  • A course group sharing weblogs of their experiences.
  • A diagnostic assessment to help individuals analyse their skills in a particular area.
  • Inadequate technology is no longer an excuse for ineffective on-line learning approaches. The major challenge today is organisation culture and fundamentally changing the way we learn. Arguably the education sector (at all levels) is more advanced than the corporate sector – a fundamental element of primary school teaching is helping children learn strategies for learning – but there are clear signs that corporate e-learning strategies are starting to embrace the opportunities that are available.

    If we accept the opportunities that e-learning creates and are empowered as learning professionals to use technology creatively we’re on the starting blocks. But we should move forward with caution.

    Supporting the learner
    Contrary to what some commentators will tell us, there is nothing wrong with the more ‘traditional’ e-learning approach which uses on-line courses to transfer knowledge and practice skills – sometimes this approach even works!

    However, it often fails for the simple reason that we lose sight of the learner and don’t consider what support they need or how the materials need to be designed to specifically suit them.

    The first rule of e-learning is that learners should not be left to study in isolation – unless we think the ‘e’ stands for estranged! Critically there must be adequate support mechanisms for the learner to help them through the programme and understand how to apply the learning to their situation.

    Support should be synonymous with e-learning – the only subjective element is whether the learner chooses to use it – but it doesn’t need to be hi-tech. Effective support and collaboration mechanisms are available through open source technologies like Moodle, and we shouldn’t forget the direct support from our colleagues.

    So, what about the design of the materials? The latest buzz-phrase is ‘rapid development’ but does anybody really know what that means? Materials have always been developed as quick as practically possible; the only difference today is that authoring tools are more readily available to develop courses in-house.

    Regardless of who develops the materials they must be pedagogically strong (or users won’t learn), and they need to be technically accurate (or users will learn the wrong thing). We have become familiar with this mythical creature called a ‘subject matter expert’ who can be given an authoring tool and create high quality e-learning in less than four weeks – and it costs nothing but a bit of time!

    Whilst self-authoring can be a powerful solution to some organisation challenges it is not the only answer. Organisations that use subject matter experts to author their entire e-learning portfolio must ensure they’re offering their internal customers ‘best value’ in terms of creativity, instructional design and learning approaches – or they might easily be left behind.

    When e-learning goes bad
    If we accept that e-learning is about bringing learning to the learner then arguably it has no limitations. The only restrictions lie in how it’s implemented. If the particular solution is not relevant to the training need then it won’t be effective.

    A commonly used model to help assess relevance is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains which identifies categories of learning based on acquiring the requisite knowledge, skills and/or attitudes (or cognitive, conceptual and phsycomonitor domains).

    This is an effective way to differentiate learning materials to meet the needs of the learner. The taxonomy recognises that different areas of knowledge and skills require different instructional design principles, treatment and delivery media.

    For example:
    Cognitive skills require problem solving and critical thinking.
    Conceptual learning requires information gathering and organisation skills.
    Psychomotor skills require practice and hands-on experience .

    It is clear that ‘traditional’ e-learning would not be a viable approach for many of the psychomotor skills but as part of a blended approach, e-learning can play a powerful role at all levels – if it’s in the right hands!

    As Professor Seymour Papert (the pioneer of artificial intelligence) once said: “You can't teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it."  Perhaps that’s what e-learning is all about?

    * Mike Ditchburn is e-learning solutions director for REDTRAY a blended learning company providing bespoke education and knowledge management solutions.

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