Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Is eLearning Today?

The concept of eLearning has expanded a great deal since colleges and universities started to adopt it in earnest three to five years ago. Ideas are constantly evolving, as technology, pedagogy, and student needs change.

It is useful ask the question, "What is eLearning today?"

Let's approach the answer in steps. It makes analyzing the question a bit easier, because it helps us see where changes are taking place and why ideas are evolving.

eLearning is more than a delivery method. It is an approach to learning. This is fundamental. What eLearning stresses is its adaptability to the learners' lives, needs, and experience.

eLearning works because it is now possible to make it universal. Universality does not simply refer to the fact that eLearning is available for people all around the globe from all walks of life, backgrounds, and goals. It also means that the technology used to deliver eLearning is available in standard, uniform yet flexible ways so that eLearning can take place by means of many types of computers and mobile devices.

Learning preferences and styles find maximum accommodation with e-learning. Of course, to achieve the maximum amount of flexibility, one has to include mobile learning and incorporate interaction, whether face to face or with technology.

New possibilities for interaction. With mobile learning, there are numerous ways to interact with students and to have meaningful interactions. While interactions used to occur only within the space of the learning management system, mobile learning and Internet telephony have changed all of that. There are new approaches. I've mentioned a few specific examples, but there are numerous, and the providers do not have to be the ones I'm mentioning here. These are just recognizable ones which are so ubiquitous as to be almost generic.

* Discussion board (asynchronous posting of text, images, video, and audio)
* Video conferencing using iChat, Skype (with video), AIM (video enabled), etc. (synchronous)
* Webinar / teleconference using iChat, Skype, netmeeting, AIM, etc. (synchronous)
* Text messaging with smartphones
* Instant messaging & video-messaging with smartphones
* Podcasting (using audioblogger from a smartphone)

Any time, any place. Any time, any place is something of an exaggeration. Clearly, it is not possible to interact with classmates, or to send or receive coursework if one does not have a connection to the Internet. However, it is possible to download content in anticipation of curtailed access and to read the course material, write papers, and to do review activities later.

Faculty roles grow and shape themselves to be guides and encouraging mentors. The instructor is able to provide focused and clear guidance for the student, especially when the work requires writing, research, and making connections with the contemporary world.

Situated learning can be taken to a new level. The mobility and flexibility allow students to bring content and context together. The learning experiences can be in the past, or they could be incorporated into the instructional activities. For example, a course in botany could require students to take their smartphones to a park and to take photographs of leaves in the trees, and to challenge fellow classmates to identify the trees.

Research resources expand exponentially. Because online courses involve access to the virtual libraries, the eLearner has more access to articles than the student who must rely on a traditional library.

Perhaps the most ethical approach, in terms of inclusion -- if designed correctly. If an eLearning program is designed well, it will accommodate diverse learning styles, be culturally inclusive, encourage the exchange of ideas, have flexible technical requirements with few barriers to access and entry.

Because of the potential of eLearning and mobile learning to be so inclusive and flexible, it does have potentially the highest potential for distribution and dissemination. Open source experiments are making that a reality for many. However, ethical issues abound if the content and flexibility are used to provide shoddy content or to push politics or a certain ideological stance.

eLearning is still in its nascent stages. We really don't know what will happen in the future, but we do have an idea of its potential. Now the challenge is to make a high-quality education available for everyone.
==========By Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.==========

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