An interesting week for eLearning

As long as it’s Saturday, I wanted to pause for a moment to explore / share a couple of interesting posts from this week’s social media landscape that I think signal some interesting shifts in awareness of our unusual situation as educators. I have long contended (I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years now, and have held largely unchanged beliefs regarding the impact of the information age on education for the bulk of that period) that the shift in communication and knowledge delivery from an emphasis on textual literacy to an emphasis on wholistic media literacy and a democratized bidirectional communication paradigm, would fundamentally alter our entire educational paradigm.

There are few places where the impact of the Internet, Hypermedia, Telecommunications and Social Media are more apparent than on the ever escalating debates around the ‘efficacy’ of teaching / learning when knowledge is acquired online.

This week we heard Bill Gates weigh in on the relevance of eLearning with a broadly painted vision of the future. According to an article in Tech Crunch, Bill said that in only 5 years the most effective education will be online. (Apply a thick grain of salt here – for a host of reasons including lack of expertise as both a futurist and an educator, and then add a considerable respect for what has become an impressive and visionary ability to predict realities in computing.)

The core of his message was really that Higher Education needs to get on the ball about recognizing the validity of self-motivated, self-directed research. The point is well taken. In a world where expert testimony from the most impressive minds on the planet is just a YouTube Ted lecture away, is that Freshman 101 course taught by a frantic young grad student really the better use of time? Of course evaluation of knowledge acquired, and the implications for productive use of that knowledge becomes an enormous barrier to the recognition of such non-traditional accomplishments.

Dr. Richard Clark gave the Keynote address at Moodle Moot last week in Austin, Texas. The session was focused on the ‘myth of success’ surrounding Constructivism according to an article on Moodle News. Dr. Clark appears to have recapped Richard Mayer’s fundamental overview of Multimedia eLearning Principles, and pointed to these fundamental delivery solutions as solidly evidence of effective instruction. If you haven’t seen / familiarized yourself with these principles they are quite useful in Multimedia eLearning design, and are solidly grounded in studies from psychology and educational psychology – collecting a set of design principles that when tested (given very limited study parameters) demonstrate improved learning among the test subjects.

NOTE: The video above is not Dr. Clark’s keynote. It is however somewhat helpful in understanding the impetus behind his research and gives you a glimpse at the ideas he and his colleagues are germinating.

Clark appears to have taken the standard Mayer et. al Multimedia principles a step further and applied some of the more time tested principles of Instructional design – eg. rote and repetition, interaction through frequent repetition and response etc. to further emphasize the tenets of direct instruction – and polarize these methods apart from an approach commonly regarded as constructivism or discovery learning (another theoretical base for education which generally manifests in learning activities that are more centered on learner ‘realization’.)

Clark’s approach is interesting in that it has the potential to polarize viewpoints, but also because there are some very solid facts supporting the efficacy of the methods he lists, for maximizing the impact of knowledge based instruction. That said, in a world now focused on 21st century learning outcomes – seeking people well prepared to create, adapt, synthesize and evaluate information critically – that sort of polarization, if misused, could be quite toxic for young educators. An exclusive dependence on these proven methodologies will prove disappointing if we are trying to build skills in the upper echelon of Bloom’s taxonomy, but abandoning these very valuable direct instruction methods in favor of purely Constructivist solutions that lack the predictability of outcome would be equally problematic.

I draw my understanding of the lack of universality of the conventional approaches from my own educational experiences in learning to do things like paint, draw, negotiate contracts, design complex technical solutions etc. It is likely the same kind of argument that most educators use for their ‘blind acceptance’ of Constructivism – and the flaw that Clark rightly points out in the evidence behind the efficacy of the theoretical model.

Interestingly, if we look critically at Constructivist teaching strategies we will quickly realize that even within the conventions of Instructional Design described by Clark, the Constructivist model is playing a natural role. Commonly accepted Constructivist teaching strategies include things like; actively involved learners, an interactive – student centered environment, and the assignment of both accountability and responsibility to the student. These fundamental tenets are at play in many varieties of conventional / direct instruction – so long as it strays to some extent from the sage on the stage model.

Notably, Mr. Gates call for recognition of the educational accomplishments of independent students swimming in a wellspring of information from credible experts, smacks firmly of this sort of Constructivist tradition. I suspect that as with most such situations, great thinkers are tickling the edges of new paradigms that may well help us all to thrive in this new post literate, age of information. The challenge we all face is to adopt the willingness of Clark and Gates to break down our assumptions about existing paradigms for learning, and in so doing – both honor the relevance of our traditions and embrace the reality of our future.

Just after this initial post i discovered George Siemens recent conversation on YouTube.

His core topic is Socializing Open Learning – and in this fascinatingly parallel discussion he points to the relevance of communication connections (above the network) and notes that a ‘course’ may well not be the best delivery mechanism for information in a system which is overflowing with content (information) and / or one which is not stable (in which the body of information is subject to constant redefinition, modification etc.)

Please feel free to comment away – I certainly don’t consider mine the ‘last word’ on this, and hope to hear your thoughts.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Allen-
    Very interesting & thought provoking read. Just a couple of points-

    First I don’t see the problem of having lectures/readings online. My first degree was by the traditional approach- just listening to a lecturer (large classes), writing notes but not learning or understanding much of it until I studied at the end of the semester- so that is not really a very effective means to learn anything! So at least if it is online you could read/listen when you wanted to and stop to check things out on google or whatever.

    Second re the constructivist issue: I think part of the problem is that the average teacher trying to use modern approaches just get to learn the ‘popular’ view and not the correct perspective of a teaching/learning theory. For example the popular view of constructivist approach I have seen is that you let the students loose on the Internet, or give them a project title with no guide or guidance, and somehow the students are supposed to come out with something amazing.


    • Andrea,

      Both your points are very valid. Certainly online educational content can be amazing, i’d even argue that online experiences, learning environments, even asychronous instruction can be totally right in some cases. I just suspect that we haven’t sorted out very well yet everything we need to know to ‘prove’ that its working well. We know at this point that often learners feel disconnected, and miss the 1:1 experience. And arguably, some constructivist concepts are embedded in even the most ‘conventional’ classroom experiences. Rapid fire Q&A for example could be considered a manner of building based on the student’s extant schema.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. That is really true, Allen, I totally agree. I think it also leads on to bigger issues- There is a lot of great research and great examples from practice ‘out there’, but somehow a lot of it does not reach the average teacher.

    I think that can be a major role of blogs. Because they are timely, use normal english and are not too long, I think they can somehow become a bridge. … just need to get the teachers accessing them!

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