E-learning: painkiller or headache?

Russell Beale

E-learning is fast becoming the next artificial intelligence (AI). It is in danger of the hype setting expectations that exceed the reality, which in turn leads to disappointment and dismissal. And as with AI, this would be a mistake. Russell Beale investigates.

It's true that we don't have speaking computers or home robots that do our every bidding, but we do have search engines that can index the whole of the internet and return results to us in fractions of a second, we do have intelligent agents that can search for the best deals for us, we have systems that compete at our level in games and so on.

The wildest of the hype for AI has not emerged, but the impact has been significant. The same is true for elearning. Some early adopters, spurred on by the thought of having no more need for teachers or advisors, have leapt into e-learning, various commercial systems and standards have emerged, and even though the results have been mixed, dismissing it would be a mistake.

The main reason for this is, in my view, down to a misunderstanding of e-learning. As with any new approach to anything, it is common to try and map the previous way of doing things into the new one, but that is not the best way to get optimum use from the technology.

Too many approaches to e-learning have simply taken existing materials, instructional techniques and exercises, transferred them onto a computer, and provided access to this information, and maybe some means of electronically assessing it and marking it, and called it e-learning.

Unsurprisingly such approaches have tended to be rather more unsuccessful than would have been liked. This approach is one that I term 'e-teaching'. It is actually designed around the educators, not the learners, and aims to save the instructor time and effort - and it often does do this, but at the expense of the learner.

Proper e-learning takes into account the advantages of the medium and the technological opportunities, and produces tailored approaches that maximize these benefits. For example technology can make connecting people together a relatively simple affair, whether synchronously through voice, messenger or asynchronously through email and bulletin boards.

Sensible e-learning programmes take advantage of this, providing shared projects, communal comment, and peer review and appraisal within their educational framework, and hence provide a different experience.

Sitting in front of a computer without a teacher can be a demotivating and boring experience, so expecting students to read large quantities of material from the screen, in itself an unpleasant experience, and then to regurgitate it in an impersonal computerized test is bound to result in disinterest and a lack of satisfactory outcomes.

By considering the wider contexts of learning, we can see that e-learning has a place, but that it may be in conjunction with other more standard ways of training or educating people, not in place of them. Where e-learning is exceptionally successful is in supporting ad-hoc, informal learning, in which people gain wider knowledge through having access to information and guidance whilst primarily engaged in some other task or activity.

Google, and the other search engines, play a major role in this: many people consult it in order to find out how to do something, and so increase their knowledge, even though their main aim was not to learn or understand that in the first place.

Because of its potential in supporting more informal, just-in-time approaches to education, e-learning is escaping from the desktop and moving onto other devices as well. There is a growing research and commercial interest in the possibilities and challenges of mobile learning, in which either the user, the technology or both can be mobile.

Mobile learning can take many forms, but our research experiences have shown that presenting textual information on a mobile device is not the best way to engage learners and to develop their skills.

Indeed one study compared sending university students text messages with the key lecture points to students taught in the conventional manner and to students who were merely sent reminders that the lecture was going to start shortly. Those reminded to turn up fared best: mobile systems and conventional education working in harmony achieved the best results.

What is needed for successful, flexible mobile learning is a more holistic understanding of the problem; a stateof-the-art approach is one in which context-aware devices have some idea of their location, their owner's state of education and interests, their past learning experiences, and their immediate and long-term goals.

Such a system, which integrates mobile devices with GPS, embedded technologies and back-end servers, is then able to assist the user in achieving their everyday goals, whether they are explicit learning ones or more informal ones. In particular the system does more than present relevant information: it can guide you to a new and relevant location, such as to a different but related painting in an art gallery, or can put you in touch with a group of experts who are debating the issues you are interested in.

On a more prosaic level, mobile e-learning systems can deliver key information to workers in the field, allowing them to access the most appropriate and effecting information and approaches for the jobs that they have in hand. And on the simplest level, mobile learning can be little more than having the right information at the right time: one of the most recent successes in the space has been a first aid manual for your mobile phone, giving you immediate access to key actions that you may need to take in an acute situation.

E-learning is growing up as a field and is starting to share effective practice and materials, making it a more interesting proposition for many organizations. A variety of standards have been developed to allow authors to tag their information with metadata - information about the information - that in turn allows it to be accessed and used effectively in e-learning systems.

There is much made of Learning Objects: encapsulated chunks of material and assessment that focus on one particular skill or piece of knowledge, and many proponents see a future in which a selection of Learning Objects can be combined to make a tailored curriculum for individual learners. This may be true, but it seems to me to be closer to the ideals of e-teaching than of e-learning, though there is no doubt that making information reusable and accessible from elsewhere is an attractive one, both educationally and commercially.

Recent research efforts are focusing on developing e-learning patterns, in which good practice and exemplar solutions to educational problems are documented and shared, allowing educators to craft new courses and draw on the expertise of others who have discovered the problems and pitfalls and provided solutions to these.

E-learning does have the ability to provide organizations - educational, training and commercial - with massive benefits. Properly done, e-learning can support users in becoming more knowledgeable, better skilled, safer and more effective in whatever it is that they do, and this can be done at a scale inaccessible to conventional educational approaches.

But it can also be an inappropriate way to deal with issues as it can be expensive, unsuccessful and frustrating. Which it is depends far more on the understanding and vision of the commissioning organization than it does on the technological approaches to delivering it.