Interview: What is your take on the rise of e-learning sites over a more traditional text-book or course based approach

Question: What is your take on the rise of e-learning sites over a more traditional text-book or course based approach? Are there any downsides to learning alone?

Matt Johnston

The Market is responding to demand. We now not only want to know about stuff but also how to do stuff and we don’t want to wait. It’s like the web has evolved from a simple state machine to a database of knowledge and is now evolving again into a source of experts and expertise. We’re not only place-shifting but also time-shifting our learning.

My only concern is that e-learning is suffering from the same issue that plagued desktop publishing twenty years ago. Just as anyone could design and publish a magazine, so now anyone can set themselves up as an e-learning expert just by recording videos. And the proliferation of apps out there for learning support is just the tip of the iceberg. We have technology that enables us to download expertise directly and if we get stuck, give micro payments to an expert so we can get unstuck. If you want to see real world effects, then consider the use of SMS in the developing nations for knowledge transfer.

As for learning alone, I don’t respond well to it. I’m a learn by doing-and-showing kind of guy. I like the discourse of a classroom.

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Toby Osbourn

I feel that the rise of e-learning websites is a bit of a double edged sword.

On the one hand I think the rise and ease of access is an excellent thing.  The amount of quality learning materials being given away for free or sold as a service is staggering and when it comes to learning best practice on the web it has been my experience that most sites practice what they preach and make the content as open and accessible as possible. This means I can easily download some tutorial videos to watch them on a bus ride a couple of times then very quickly and easily get community feedback when I attempt some of the examples being talked about.

The other side of the sword is that whilst in some respects it is a good thing that there is no barrier to entry when it comes to e-learning, it is also in my opinion something that could lead to people knowing the high level concepts but without a sound knowledge of the core principals. It is almost too easy for someone to dedicate a couple of hours a week to learning how to use a framework to chuck together some basic sites, learn the buzz words and pretty soon you could be hiring someone to do your CMS that can follow all the latest guides but who couldn’t upgrade their own RAM or echo out the Fibonacci sequence. (Trite examples, but you get my point).

There is the argument that you could use e-learning sites in order to learn the core concepts and fundamentals that I fear people may lack if they jump into the higher level stuff. I have yet to see a site that contains everything from the most basic core concepts (what makes a computer work) to the high level stuff (creating a blog in rails in 0.23 seconds) and even if there was I would argue that there would be too much content there for someone to be able to know where they need to start and what they need to learn at any given time. A structured school environment is needed for this.

I would also very much fear that anyone could write a guide and put it online, I could write whatever I wanted on this blog and some people would consider it fact without question.  There is no external authority checking to make sure it is fact and there is pretty much no feedback loop between the author of the content and the receivers of the content.

I guess then my stance is going to have to be that e-learning is an excellent supplement for people who want to build on knowledge but will never be able to fully replace the more traditional approach of classroom learning.

Regarding learning by yourself, my concern with it is that you can think you understand a topic because you apply your own logic to it, this is why I feel e-learning needs to be a supplement to classroom learning, gaps in your logic can be filled easier with peer and teacher input.

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Paul Synnott

As with everything, there are good points and bad points to e-learning sites.  Having been a teacher in Japan for 5 years, I have taught students in classrooms using the traditional method of pen, paper, speaking and listening.  I understand the needs of students and have a good understanding of the best ways of communicating information to learners – even if they don’t speak the same language.  This is very akin to teaching/communicating technical information to non technical users.

But first, what is meant by an e-learning site? Would a general personal blog with musings of the author’s daily activities with one or two technical findings constitute an e-learning site?  Maybe not in the common image of an e-learning site, but I think any site that provides _information that the reader seeks_ is an e-learning site.  The reader has learnt something from reading that particular site.  Of course, at the other end of the scale are purpose built information resource sites like w3schools.com.

So, what are the bad points from the examples given above?

  • First, anyone can create a website.  If the intended purpose of the site is e-learning, the effectiveness of the site is entirely up to the owner / author.  They may not put the information across in the best way and may adversely affect the reader’s learning experience.  Worst case being, the reader loses interest in learning about the topic altogether and gives up.
  • The author of the information makes assumptions of the reader.  This applies across the whole range of e-learning websites.  The information is not tailored for the particular reader and therefore may not be presented in the absolute best way for them.
  • The correctness of the information may also be questionable.  A reader may take the information on a site as gospel.  If they are starting to learn about a new technology or language for example, the fundamentals must be learnt correctly and properly in order to have a good foundation to build upon.
  • The site may not be structured and does not help guide the reader.  This interrupts the learning process and causes frustration – something a student can do without when they are trying to learn.
  • The student needs to have strong self discipline to learn properly.  Studying from an e-learning site may not be suitable for everyone.  I know it certainly would not suit my English students as they needed direction and constant supervision to keep them on the right track.  However, I did experiment in a series of 3 lessons allowing the students to browse the internet for English pages to research a “Travel brochure” to promote a country/town of their choosing to their fellow students.  While some students needed a great deal of help, others were allowed to work at their own pace and research their own ideas and content which kept them interested while constantly learning.

Ok, what are the good points?

  • Information is freely available by jumping on a search engine and the reader will have something matching their request within seconds.
  • E-learning sites in all forms promote learning.
  • Because anyone can create an e-learning site, the same information can be presented in a multitude of different ways.  This means there is a high liklihood that the student can find a site that suits them and their learning style.
  • Students can learn at their own pace and without fear of being embarrassed in front of a class if they can’t keep up or make a mistake.
  • The internet is interactive.  It embraces the user (usually!).  This makes learning fun, instead of reading a dull book.
  • The student can instantly practice what they learn – in multiple ways.  Learning a language?  Do a quick quiz after learning vocab and see how much you’ve actually taken in (without having the ability to peak at the answers at the bottom of the page).  Listen to a conversation and answer questions afterward to practice listening.
  • The person who wants to learn more can always find it.  A book can’t contain everything.  The internet comes a lot closer!  If the student wants to be at the bleeding edge of technology, they can.  Want to learn the new computer language that everyone who’s nerdy is talking about?  Learn it online straight away at a time that suits you.
  • To sum up: flexibility, availability, content, and to steal one from Flickr, interestingness.

Conclusion
E-learning sites encourage learning at a student’s own page.  Students can better themselves at a time that suits them, and they can focus on the topics they want to.  As long as the student has self discipline and realises some information may be incorrect (and need verified from a second source), e-learning sites are invaluable in today’s society.

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A big thanks to everyone who responded.  If you would like in on this please read this post explaining it a bit more.

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  • John Munro

    I am using an e-Learning course at the moment from TLCC to try and learn about XPages Domino development. The course material is well put together – lots of well worked examples, well structured and lots of explanation which a non-tech like myself needs in abundance. Downsides are a) self discipline is required to set aside “quiet time” to do the course b) more self discipline is required during the e-learning to keep focussed on the content c) there is no teacher/instructor available for questions.
    Many years ago I went on a 3 days dBase III+ (I did say “many” years ago) course in London – our instructor was a tall West Indian gentleman whose catchphrase was “dBase is de Best”. Most of the course could have been replicated onto a self learning medium but the real nuggets of learning came from his answers to questions and from his experience – “here is how the text book says you can do it, but here is a short cut I have found” or “here is an undocumented workaround”.
    So I guess e-Learning will get you so far but access to a real expert is still essential.

  • http://www.tosbourn.com/ Toby Osbourn

    Cheers for the considered response John. I certainly found in university that it was the stuff that wasn’t on the slides that was the most useful.