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Are we still getting e-learning wrong – how can we get it ‘right’?

August 25th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I have written many posts about what I consider wrong with approaches to e-learning based on attempts to ‘manage’ learning through Learning Management Systems and Virtual Learning Environments. I have also written about the promise of alternative approaches based on Web 2.0, social software and Personal Learning Environments.

But are we still getting e-learning wrong? Not the technology but what we are trying to use ot for and with whom.

As with most technological innovation, first attempts at implementation tend to mimic previous social paradigms. This the idea of the virtual classroom and the on-line university. Teaching and learning  through technology have changed with the idea of blended learning and the increasing integration of technologies within curricular and pedagogic  approaches. But the main thrust of use of technology for learning remains the delivery of ‘traditional; curricula or bodies of knowledge to translational students groups – albeit extended through distance learning to a wider student cohort.

I have long thought that the transformative potential of Technology Enhanced Learning is the ability to support explorative (I am desperately trying to avoid that vague ‘constructivist’ word?) learning for anyone, anywhere. And, in a developmental perspective, the most interesting work may be the use of technology for supporting work based learning and informal learning outside traditional courses. In this respect, it is interested to see the increasing interest of projects funded under the European Commission Research programme and Education and Training programme in competence based approaches to education and training.

However, this approach remains problematic. attempts to develop standardised  taxonomies of competence tend to ignore the importance of context, especially or work based learning and Continuing Professional Development. Recently, I have been involved in a number fo projects looking at how we can use internet based technologies ot support learning, knowledge development and knowledge maturing for Careers Advice, Information and Guidance practitioners in the UK. Of course, ‘training’ is important for such a group of knowledge workers. But even more important is the ability to learn, everyday from the work they carry out, both individually and collectively. Within the Mature-IP project we have developed an approach to knowledge maturing aiming at the development and implementation of tools for Personal Learning and for Organisational learning. In reality it has proved difficult to separate out the two. Individual learning rests of more collective learning processes, within a community of practice, and equally organisational learning is largely dependent on the individual learning of the practitioners. it is possible to look at the roles and tasks carried out by Careers professionals and then to develop tools to assist in carrying out such tasks. such an approach has the merit of supporting everyday work, thus meaning that potentially learning is integrated within the work process. However, there is no guarantee that merely using technologies for task management results in significant learning and knowledge development at either individual or organisational level.

One answer appears to be to integrate more social software functionality into platforms and tools designed to support learning. this autumn, we will launch two platforms: one for policy makers within the careers field based on a mash up of WordPress and the excellent Open University Cloudworks software, and the other a professional development site for careers practitioners based on Buddypress. with both we are attempting to encourage and facilitate peer group learning based on social interaction.

Whether or not these approaches will be successful remains to be seen. But, overall, I am convinced that such projects are key to developing a more transformational direction to the use of technology for learning. In undertaking this work we are lucky to have the support of the Mature-IP project which allows a more focused examination of teh relation between theories and practice in learning and the development of Technology Enhanced Learning tools and platforms. One issue that has become apparent is that research into Technology Enhanced Learning is truly inter-disciplinary – needing at a very least a bringing together of expertise in pedagogy, education, organisational learning, work sciences, design and psychology as well as computer science. Such interdisciplinary research provides a challenge in terms of methodologies.

Projects like Mature-IP and the JISC funded Emerge project offer the basis for rethinking what we are doing with e-learning – and perhaps even for getting it ‘right’ this time round.

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