Twenty-first-century e-learning: are the dreams still to come true?


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Does technology based learning necessarily mean effective learning? Clive Holtham, of the Cass Business School at City University, London, doesn’t think so.
In our article, Clive looks back at the various technologies promising to revolutionise learning, from his first experience of developing online learning in 1971 to the more recent virtual world of Second Life. So why have so many of them failed to deliver on their promises?
Clive argues that we can’t simply apply technology to learning and assume that it improves it. If e-learning is to remain popular amongst both training departments and learners themselves, we need to focus on the way in which we can use technological innovation, in conjunction with other learning tools and approaches, to drive learning innovation.

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Twenty-first-century e-learning: are the dreams still to come true?

  1. 1. 24 Twenty-first-century e-learning: are the dreams still to come true? Context There has been a huge growth in the use of technology as part of learning, especially in the last decade. But there is no guarantee that it will actually improve learning itself. Indeed there continue to be examples where the opposite is the case; I recently saw a piece of health and safety training where the technology was so badly implemented that quite honestly reading a booklet and doing some multiple choice tests at the end would have been far more effective. Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 1
  2. 2. e-Learning is the application of digital technology I dreamt it would transform education within a to learning. There is a huge literature on the take- decade. It didn’t. up of digital technology, of technology adoption, and much of this is simply ignored when it comes In 1982 we developed a management to the design of e-learning. It has been understood development software package on the BBC Micro. since the pioneering work of the Tavistock Complete with monitor, we fitted it into a couple Institute in the 1940s that the mere physical of boxes that could be taken home by managers. It implementation of technology does not guarantee was used for many years in some places, not least business success. The Tavistock socio-technical because the software developers made it highly systems model identifies two further interacting engaging. Today we don’t have to struggle with the dimensions in addition to technology and task equipment; we have near-universal availability of (that is, business success). These are structure and laptops. Yet even with constant access to the web people. Unless structure and people are considered as a learning platform, there is still not enough alongside technology, it will only be by chance that compelling content available for management technology investment leads to business success. development. Yet we continue to find software vendors, systems I proposed something in 1992 which I called developers and integrators who brutally ignore the an ‘integrated learning environment’ which socio-technical systems model, falling back instead would have eight interacting modules for every on a naïve, linear, technology-fixated model of main type of learning collaboration. We then learning design. started implementing it using web and intranet technologies. 15 years on, we now have a variety of commercial ‘virtual learning environments’ (VLEs). Yet these are often used for little more than Any dream won’t do distributing handouts and uploading coursework. What a bitter end to that particular dream – I first used an online computer in 1971, connected although the good news is that these type of to the GEISCO server in Cleveland, Ohio. I wrote monolithic solutions can be increasingly reverse my first e-learning application on risk management engineered using cheap open source components. using that system in 1972, with its humble teletype. 2 Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009
  3. 3. In 2007 I began a study of Second Life, dreaming displace all analogue media. My worry is that the that it would have tremendous educational unthinking application of digitalisation to learning possibilities, which it could still have. But there are could turn off both learners and the funders of technical, governance and cultural flaws in Second learning and, in particular, drive out the current Life which mean that ultimately some other virtual minority of e-learning that actually represents a world platform is likely to come to the fore for both major step forward. business and educational purposes. Strong evidence for the continuing importance I have had a cumulative set of dreams about of the physical world – the counterpart being the educational technology over four decades, but virtual world – is the failure of many attempts to many of them have taken years to come about, create ‘pure-play’ e-learning universities, such as have been dead-ends, or even gone backwards. the UK e-University, and UNext and Pensare in the US. It is significant that what successful work there has been on pure e-learning has often come from remote parts of Canada and Australia where The physical world there is a geographical imperative to offer distance learning. The actual term ‘e-learning’ is not only past its sell- by date, it is an increasing liability. The mere move to electronic or digital is not in itself significant any more. Much more important is the re-thinking of learning methods and promoting innovation in Blended learning learning processes. These don’t depend on the We also need urgently to get rid of the terrible physical media. term ‘blended learning’. This was cooked up by e-learning specialists when, at the time of the Some of the most exciting developments we have bust, it became clear that the supposed been involved in at the Cass Learning Laboratory displacement of physical learning by e-learning was during the last few years have involved index cards, simply not going to happen. So blended learning post-its, magnets and large pieces of paper. There was actually invented to give some credence to is no likelihood that digital media can or should e-learning by linking it closely to physical learning! Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 3
  4. 4. 4 Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009
  5. 5. Ever since an ancient guru used a stick in the sand This shift is also going to be driven by generation Y to emphasise a point, humans have used whatever entering the workplace, with a completely new set tools or technologies they could to augment the of expectations of how to deal with information. purely oral dimension of learning. A classroom We don’t know for certain, but generation Y’s represents the blending of physical space with the propensity towards individuality plus the pressures oral. A class supported by prior reading blends the of a recession may well imply a new set of ideas technology of the textbook with the oral. And so about the work/life balance and how e-learning for on. Great learning methods have always blended people in work might be delivered the physical world with the virtual world of ideas and imagination. Another key issue is information literacy and IT skills within the workplace. How to encourage The term ‘blended learning’ is also used to people to go beyond the first hit in Google or refer to the combination of face-to-face (f2f) Wikipedia is a really big issue for people interested and electronic delivery, which really shouldn’t in information literacy in universities, and we get be anything special. You get that combination the impression that many employers haven’t really whenever you support f2f teaching with web grasped the importance of this. Employees need resources (especially now that VLEs are more or to develop more sophisticated skills in recognising less universal, for higher education at least) or when when resources are authoritative and in critically you build a meeting into something like an Open evaluating their context in order for technology to University distance learning course. Instead, when be used in effective learning. we talk about blended learning, it should be in terms of combining formal and informal learning, or otherwise combining different approaches to learning which meet different learning styles and strategies among students. The silver bullet One of the repeated mistakes of technological determinism is assuming that simply because Rethinking the teaching a technology is invented or evolved or refined or useful to a few people, then that technology and learning model represents an unparalleled opportunity for innovation and improvement. This mindset has What we need now in adult education and training been common in education and training, partly is to put our best minds onto the problem of how because of the importance of education and to deploy digital technology effectively. This will training to society, their enormous budgets when happen through a combination of market-driven, measured in aggregate, and the belief that those entrepreneurial initiatives, typically through smaller budgets are not always effectively deployed. Add software developers. It will also happen through in educational administrators and heads of training, investment in research and development, not who may not be the most technologically literate only by government but also by large educational cadres, and technological innovators, who are as providers, media companies and inventors inside excellent in sales as in technology (if not more so), and outside of academia. and there is a recipe for expensive disaster. We need to throw out the old models of computer- If anything, the lesson of technological innovation based training, such as page turning e-books, over the last 50 years has been that we should be symbolising the most extreme form of transmissive constantly experimenting with new ideas in the learning. We need to focus instead on approaches hope that at least some of them will serendipitously which promote high-engagement learning, prove useful, because you can predict neither particularly those which can exploit the full technology trends nor what technology will catch potential of social networking and Web 2.0. users’ imagination. Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 5
  6. 6. Conclusion We can describe three measures of performance in an organisation – actuality, capability and potentiality. We are at a point where the capability of technology to enhance learning has never been greater and the potential even more so. But the actual achievements, especially at the average level of achievement, is depressingly far below the capability. What is needed is a focus on how that potential and capability can be leveraged to contribute to truly effective, engaging learning. 6 Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009
  7. 7. Clive Holtham Professor of Information Management, Cass Business School and Director, Cass Learning Laboratory After taking a Masters degree in management, he trained as an accountant and was Young Accountant of the Year in 1976. Following six years as a Director of Finance and IT, he moved to the Business School in 1988. His research is into management learning and into the strategic exploitation of information systems. He has been an adviser to the European Parliament on educational technology, and led a major EU project on intangibles. In 2002 he was named as one of the top three e-tutors in the UK, and in 2003 was awarded a UK National Teaching Fellowship. He is author of a large number of publications, and lectures, broadcasts and consults in the UK and internationally. He was a founding member of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, the City of London’s 100th livery company, He is currently on the board of, exploiting the web as a vehicle for informal adult learning. You can contact Clive at Advance, © Saffron Interactive 2009 7
  8. 8. Third Floor, Gray’s Inn House 127 Clerkenwell Road London EC1R 5DB Design by Marco Rotoli t: 020 7092 8900 ISNN: 1478-7641 © 2009 Saffron Interactive f: 020 7242 2757 All rights reserved e: