Thursday, February 19, 2009

Champion Elearning Myths

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Maui taming the sun - a Māori legendMaui taming the sun - The Marae, Te Papa Museum of N.Z.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool in-favour-of-elearning teacher. If I had the option, I would choose elearning as the way to teach distance students most of the time. I know that many of my past students found elearning and blended combinations of it useful and effective. I cherish their successful results that prove this. I also believe that an elearning component of blended learning is a way for the future.

But the recent and global opinion that elearning is the way to solve all our economic problems, in training and education, scares me. When I read some of the positive articles and blogs that extol the virtues of elearning, I am also aware that myths abound that are associated with this relatively new mode of learning. I fear for the future of elearning, that it might get put to judgement unfairly, following its misuse in a time of real need.

Here’s my list of champion elearning myths:

1 - Print based resources are easily and cheaply converted into elearning resources

It’s a popular fallacy that successful learning resources, well designed for another mode of delivery (using print media for instance) can be easily converted into elearning resources. The late-20th-century trick of pdfing a print resource in Word and then banging it up on a server as a web-page is as erroneous as expecting a teenager to know everything about safe contraception.
Robert Frost explained, “poetry is what’s lost in translation”. In an analogous way, pedagogy is what’s lost when a well-designed print-based resource is translated directly into an elearning layout.

A good print-based resource is successful partly by virtue of how the design and formatting of the resource lends itself to the media that’s used to hold it. Developing an elearning resource that’s just as good, means matching the design and formatting of the resource to the medium that’s chosen, whether it is text, image, video, animation, interactive or involving all of these.

2 - Elearning removes the need for a teacher/trainer /facilitator

Common misconceptions are that elearning students do not need support when stuck, confused or don’t know what to do next, and that the students will not need follow-ups to check if they're on track. All of these seemingly minor details amount to what is termed ‘support’.

Teacher support is one of the essentials for student engagement.

Do learners need to be engaged? Do they ever! There is nothing more likely to dampen the enthusiasm of a learner than getting stuck on a topic or concept and not being able to get timely help. Timeliness is paramount when learners arrive at this too common stage.

A learner who is struggling with an idea could well be right on track and may not even know it. What finer input is there than a responsive teacher, to give support and encouragement when the learner doesn’t really know what to do next. The lifeline to the teacher should be apparent and available to the elearner at all times.

Though this may not necessarily always be convenient for the teacher, the next best response to a student plea for help is the teacher to get back with the support the student needs immediately it is convenient.

3 - Attractive colourful images capture the learner’s attention and generate interest

Unless the elearning developer is careful to select engaging images, animations and videos that deliver the message of the learning objective, all that the images will succeeded in doing will be to distract from the learning that could otherwise have taken place. Pictures, diagrams and animations should be used specifically and only to assist with a learning objective.

Keep it simple and relevant are the watchwords for effective use of imaging in elearning design. Exactly the same can be said for any audio-based resourcing.

4 - Elearning and associated technology stimulates interest, and motivates learning

My experience with teaching students of all ages is that not all students want to embrace the most up-to-date technology when they are studying. The most likely turn-off for a learner is being forced to learn from devices they may have aversion to – ‘learner choice’ tells us all about that. There will be students in the target group who really don’t like elearning.

They will find any opportunity they can to switch off and to ignore the wonderful elearning experience that you’ve developed for them. Providing print based alternatives for those students can give them welcome relief and provide some of the necessary variety that has brought blended learning to the fore in recent years.

5 - As long as the learning aim is bulleted and made clear at the beginning of the module, the learner will identify the learning objective and know what's to be learnt

This myth is exceedingly close to being a genuine fairy tale. Contrary to what many 20th century pedagogues will maintain, most learners find the learning aim – the summary of the learning objective – to be as relevant as a runcible lemon.

How can a learner possibly see any relevance in the summary of what’s to be learnt when they know nothing about it?

Only geniuses and second-time-rounders get anything from being told the objective of the next lesson. FACT. For many students, this can be a real start-of-lesson turnoff.

6 - Learners will navigate their way through modules in an elearning course with little need for guidance

By definition, a learner needs to learn. Assuming that the learner knows the route and is motivated to follow it, is like leading three-year-olds to the middle of a labyrinth and expecting them to walk straight out again. The navigation for any elearning course has to be everywhere apparent.

7 - Learners will easily find needed learning resources and their components as long as links to them are visible and well labelled

If any part of a learning resource is important to the learning, that part should be introduced to the learner wherever and whenever it is appropriate. Timeliness is all-important, and the time and place to introduce the learner to an important part of a resource is at the immediate point in time when they might need the knowledge or skill.

It should not be left up to the learner to decide if it is important. Learners, by virtue of their ignorance, cannot be expected to know the relevance of anything new that has to be learnt. In particular, it is part of good scaffolding that students are prepared for the next step in the learning, and this should not be an optional learner pathway.

8 - Learners read all posted announcements and this is the best way to pass important information on to them

Very few learners are vigilant enough to read all notices, especially if they believe that they’ve read them all before. Isn’t this always the case with a noticeboard? If it’s all that important, it has to be communicated to the learner by at least two means of communication.

I have been guilty of emailing and sending printed letters to my cohort of students about something extremely important that I’ve also splashed across the web-noticeboard.

9 - Once an elearning resource for a topic is developed and made available to learners, development in that area of learning doesn’t need to be revisited

Isn’t it wonderful that we are all different? Learners are just as diverse in this respect. The adage, “different strokes for different folks” is never truer than with learners. If you think you have nailed it with an elearning resource that you've developed then think again. There will always be a learner somewhere in your learning cohort who will not be able to make head nor tail of your pedagogical thinking.

This applies as much to a classroom as it does to an elearning environment. Provide as many pathways to learning a skill, knowledge or concept as are practically possible.

10 - Learning is linear, and so elearning courses should be constructed so that the learner progresses from A to Z with the least opportunity to digress

Learners who are familiar with parts of a module will be turned off by a pedantic one-way approach to forced examples and compulsory activities. Opportunity must always be available for learners to skip a part if need be, and to retrace a skipped part of a module if they find that they really didn’t have a grasp of a teaching point after all.

Further to this, learners do not all progress through knowledge, concepts and relevant topics the same way. Providing a variety of learning pathways that embraces learner choice at appropriate points in a course empowers the learner.

11 - Elearning is a cheap way to make learning happen

This is the acme of all elearning myths.

In much the same way as the idea abounds that teaching is an easy job, the belief that elearning is cheaper than other methods of teaching and learning is so far from reality it is tragic. Unfortunately, this elearning myth tends to be propagated by some teachers too.

Well-designed resources for elearning are not cheap. Neither is their proper implementation. But what is even more costly is elearning that is supposed to give access to essential learning but that is shoddily developed and doesn’t actually assist with learning at all.

That’s expensive!

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Bonnie K said...

Isn't this the reason why we want to engage kids in their private online experiences?
Seems to me that the more I read educational literature and student memories of their high school experiences, the key to learning is the passionate TEACHER.
Such a shame that the ulterior motives always boil down to saving a dime.
Great thinking and writing Ken,
and I love the image that you being with.


Britt Watwood said...

Right on, Ken!

Interesting timing. We are working on a White Paper here to draw a line in the sand and explicitly state our beliefs about online learning. One paragraph states:

...These changes are disrupting teaching as we previously knew it, and have generated interest in many programs to explore the addition of online courses to their traditional offerings. As faculty explore translating their courses to an online environment, we want to clearly state ... Placing content online does not make a course online. The content is important, but equally important and perhaps more so is the engagement that occurs in a facilitated learning community led by a subject matter expert. We believe that teaching online is fundamentally different from teaching face-to-face. Our basic assumption underlying this paper is that while content will typically be (and rightfully so) the same in a face-to-face class and its online equivalent, the teaching practices face-to-face and online are totally different. The focus of this paper will be to illustrate those pedagogical practices that have been shown through research to be effective online.

Would you be interested in reviewing our White Paper? Email me if you are.

srinivas said...

Well written, I should say! But some of the myths sound too trivial... I don't know if anyone believes that User would be able to navigate or finish the course without an instructor's help...

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bonnie!

Elearning is still very new. I listen to assumptions that abound about this mode of teaching and learning all the time. And I am forever astonished at ideas that teachers/trainers could possibly be replaced by electronic artifacts.

Give us several more decades and, yes, I think these ideas may be more likely to bear fruit, but not in 2009. Not yet.

Catchya later

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Britt!

"These changes are disrupting teaching as we previously knew it . . ." This consequence of 'change' has been occurring since teaching entered the latter part of the 20th century. I reckon it won't stop.

What has to be established is the need for educators to be constantly reviewing what they have gleaned instead of throwing out the bathwater the baby and the bath all at the same time as has happened and is happening today.

The assertion that "those pedagogical practices that have been shown through research to be effective online" must be reviewed is paramount to paving the way towards stability in what we do as teachers.

Catchya later

paul c said...

I wonder ten years from now if e learning is much more pervasive. Blogging, learning network, researching online, using all those Web 2.0 tools will turn the classroom into a global forum. The guiding hand of the caring and astute teacher will always need to be there to provide that initial guidance and support.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai srinivas!

It is great to have you drop by.

Though the myths may sound too trivial, they are not so in reality. When you say, for instance, that you "don't know if anyone believes that User would be able to navigate or finish the course without an instructor's help", that belief must necessarily be at least implied when any organisation chooses to replace training personnel with what I'd call online self-help.

This approach to 'training' is being suggested by organisations as we write - organisations that are proposing getting rid of training, if they have not already done so, and proposing to replace this with 'elearning'.

Do drop in again sometime. It's great to have you visit Middle-earth.

Catchya later

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Paul

My feeling is that there's still a lot of water to pass under the bridge before we have a global forum in the classroom. Though this environment is not new to me, and has existed in pockets in isolation, the technology has a long way to go yet before the learning comes before the e.

I take your point, and wholeheartedly agree about the place of the teacher in all this.

My hope is that the teacher is not burdened with the role of e-trouble-shooter in such future environments - that learning is transparent and not e-clouded by an over-indulgence in technological tools to provide it.

Catchya later

Sarah Hanawald said...

Brilliantly put! I get so frustrated when I hear educators/ business people talking about how students will just listen to great lecturers on their iPods and only need "real" teachers every now and then, if at all. Several of your points tie together the truth that students need personal interaction with teachers in order to make meaning out of [curriculum, content, reading, materials, etc]. Yes, the personal interaction is more than possible via electronic means, but it is WORK to make it happen!

Thank you!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Sarah!

Thanks for your support with this. As I said on Clive Shepherd's post, "There is no easy option to learning."

Catchya later

Claire Thompson said...

Great post Ken! I teach at an e-learning school (here we are referred to as a distributed learning school) and I come across a lot of folks who believe in many of these myths.

Because we are small school we do not, as of yet, develop our own courses; we pay to use courses that are already developed and meet our provincial learning outcomes. I have seen many examples of courses that prove your point in myth #1.

Myth #11, "Elearning is a cheap way to make learning happen", is impacting a lot of people right now as dollars for public education become more scarce. It takes a big investment of time and money to develop good on-line courses. It also takes a lot of teacher time (and therefor money) to support students. In myth #2 you said, "Teacher support is one of the essentials for student engagement." You can't just sign up a lot of kids and say, "here you go, now start handing in your assignments, we'll talk again at report card time." It takes a lot of support from teachers to
- orient the student on how to navigate through their various courses
- provide meaningful feedback
- find out when the student is lost
- help them to understand the content

Thanks for this!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Claire!

I'm glad you found some empathy in this post! You should know these myths well, teaching where you are.

I love your summary of needed areas of teacher support. Thanks for dropping by.

Catchya later