Wednesday, January 19, 2011

eLearning – do we know what the heck we are doing? Are we in a rut?

Trent Batson, executive director of The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning, has just published a thought provoking article in Campus Technology (dated 19 Jan 2011). As a practitioner in the field of eLearning I read Trent’s article with great interest. Many of the points he touched upon really rang true to me. For example, he writes: “The shift in education is away from learning autonomously to learning collaboratively.” This statement applies broadly to education and I feel it is important to highlight this concept in an eLearning and distance education context. When I am a member of a Course Development Team that develops web-enabled courses, too often I slip into the rut of placing the academic content first in my priority list while placing student-to-student collaborating and interaction as a much lower priority. Why do I do this? I think there are several reasons:

  1. It’s easier (and faster) to put together content then it is to put together meaningful student-to-student collaboration experiences. Content is easily sourced with the maturation of the Internet and professors do not have unlimited amounts of time to devote to course development activities.

  2. Most professors have more experience putting together content than designing meaningful student-to-student collaboration experiences. Professors are content experts and many lack the specialized training in educational design.

  3. Some members of academic departments still believe that content is king! The perception exists that allocating some student energy towards collaboration only decreases the amount of time they have to spend learning the content and that this is a non-desirable effect. Some of these same people believe that teaching and learning is exclusively about lectures and textbooks. Some of those same professors build assessment schemes that test only a student's ability to regurgitate content. In the end what does the degree mean? That the student is good at memorizing? Does the workplace need the majority of staff to be good at memorizing?

  4. There is some student push-back to collaboration and interaction especially at a distance. Many provide the all too familiar complaints such as “it’s too hard”, “I hate group work”, etc. Well – being a productive person in the workplace REQUIRES interaction and group work with other staff (some of which are not geographically co-located). So despite being perceived as “difficult or hard”, collaboration is a required skill to master early in all disciplines.

Reading articles, like Trent’s, help situate and realign myself better in the big picture of education. Have a look his article and let us know if any points ring true to you. Leave a comment below

1 comment:

Hollis said...

Many of Batson's claims about exciting new classroom prospects--coordinating learning done elsewhere, the use of portfolios, focus on written communication and collaboration, authentic learning and assessment--are hallmarks of the distance learning approach. That's intriguing given his flat claim that "distance education is an oxymoron". I wonder if he's reading the same research I am--or whether his claim is based in evidence. I'd love to hear.

The first page of his article seems to devote itself to carving out turf: "distance education is not, and should never be considered, a replacement of traditional on-the-ground learning". The irony is that most distance learning folks aren't interested in _replacing_ F2F universities; the focus is more on providing complementary alternatives, and much of the distance education literature focuses on blended approaches that incorporate both distant and face-to-face contexts.

I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion that employers want people who write well, collaborate well, and are skilled at assessing and handling complicated, difficult problems. I think he's wrong about the idea that in-situ universities are automatically the best way to reach these goals simply by dint of their physical presence.

As a check of concept, if his ideas about the importance of being in a physical community with lots of other learners doing authentic tasks are correct, we should expect that homeschoolers would have significantly poorer assessments than people who went to high schools--after all, the difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is quite small. But we don't see that difference.

Some of Batson's points are excellent. But claiming them as a mandate for campus-based education and a rebuke of distance learning is a rhetorical device, not an evidential one, and it doesn't work for me.