Monday, October 22, 2007

Argument for e-Learning

Today, my Master’s of Professional Communications classes at Royal Roads University officially begin.

I'm excited by the subject matter and by the method of learning. My program is predominantly delivered through e-Learning, with a readings offline and online. There are also two periods of three weeks of intensive classes on campus in Victoria, British Columbia.

There are a lot of criticisms of e-Learning. As a web professional, I'm committed to living as much of my life online as I can, so I'm excited to be so immersed in this aspect of the Internet. Also, I think some of the concerns of e-Learning aren't always legitimate.

Some criticism undoubtedly arises, because e-Learning is new. But it's not that new - even before the Internet was popular, there was e-Learning. Back in 1993, I took a distance course from the University of Guelph that used computer programs (everything was done by exchanging diskettes). The course applications explained concepts, had users interact with the subject matter, answer questions and get feedback, and complete tests. In my case, I found this style of learning worked really well, allowing me more opportunity to work through the particular lesson and put the learning into practice – this just couldn't have happened without individual instruction, something not cost-effective to provide.
While change is no doubt intimidating to many people, I do think some instructors are worried they'll lose their jobs. If universities offer effective e-Learning, there should still be need for a lot of professors and it could grow with the opening of access to education that e-Learning enables (both by removing geographical and time barriers – sadly, as I can attest, not cost barriers though).
Another concern is that e-Learning prevents the Socratic method of learning so beloved by academics, but so lacking in modern factory universities nowadays. I didn’t get the Socratic method in my huge university classes. Even when there were opportunities to ask questions and have discussions, they were usually in sessions led by grad students who were sometimes only a year or two ahead of me. But I do believe that discussions with professors and students is essential (and something campuses really need to improve). Effective e-Learning can counters this concern, through online discussions, wikis, and forums. I have heard of courses using these but unable to get students to participate. I think is due to three reasons: 1) participation needs to be required – as are university "tutorial" type classes 2) language skills – people need to know the language and be able to articulate their thoughts through writing, obviously this will work better in some faculties than others 3) familiarity – it really helps if people feel comfortable with one another, this is hard in online only courses, but I think Royal Roads in-person time will foster a community that will then be able to be transported online.

Cheating is also concern with e-Learning. A colleague is taking an online course and must complete multiple-choice exams online. I did find it troubling that there was no means to prevent her from having help completing her tests or even that she herself did them. But I have had take-home exams before and certainly essay purchasing is not unheard of – so this may be a reality of academic life.

I suspect most people would, if it were feasible, prefer in-class rather than online or other distance learning. Distance learning has been around for ages, but traditional forms (print &/or video/televised) don't seem to be as popular as e-Learning. I suspect e-Learning's advantage is the opportunity to participate and interact. I took distance courses that did make good use of computer programs and videos to supplement what would otherwise be all reading, but there was no interactions with the professors or students. e-Learning greatly enhances distance education, but I still don't think many people prefer e-Learning (with the exception of web geeks, social phobes, mobility challenged, and naturists). e-Learning allows the opportunity to get an education when and where you want it. This allows people flexibility to study at their own time to not have to move or commute and to maintain their otherwise hectic life.

As my courses progress, I'll update this blog on my experiences with e-Learning – good and, hopefully not, bad.

Update: Thanks to Madison Murphy for her help with this post.

1 comment:

Stephen Fetter said...

I'll be really interested to follow your thoughts and comments as you move through the process.

I spent half of last week at a conference of university professors exploring how to use digital technology in theological education. There are already a significant number of theological courses online across Canada, and our conference was discussing how to make these richer, better pedagogically, and ensure that we don't duplicate work between institutions.

I attended because part of my work for the national church is to encourage the development of learning communities for in-service continuing education of ministry personnel. When we're trying to connect personnel in remote areas, this kind of technology is all that makes it possible. (For example, I'm working with a group of ministers in Labrador -- it's thousands of dollars to bring them together for a face-to-face meeting).

At the conference we were talking about different methods for structuring and evaluating courses, and different sorts of technological tools that are available. All come with a learning curve ... but then so does teaching in a face-to-face classroom! There were interesting discussions/observations in our conference (and pre-conference digital colloquium!) about the differences in style of teaching, and the different sorts of things students can learn.

For example ... I met a woman who lives in Guelph, and who is on the faculty of the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. She's been teaching Prayer and Spiritual Direction online, for credit, for the past 4 years -- and has never met any of her students face to face.

It's a different world from when I went to university ...but a very exciting one.