E-Learning – it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it!

I’ve recently sent in my final assignment of a long and grueling Masters Course in Open &  Distance Education – what a relief! I embarked on it way back in 2003, when all that most of us had was a dial-up connection; but even then the internet was beginning to change the way we all live and work. I had an inkling that a powerful bombshell was about to hit the world of training and development, and sure enough it has, although it has not been the magic bullet that some thought it would be. Nevertheless, a recent study I saw said that 50% of learning will be delivered online by 2015!! Quite a turnaround in the world of education, eh?

I signed up with the UK’s Open University, a remarkable organisation that has been a pioneer in delivering Distance learning for over 40 years. In the early days of the OU, students used to receive big boxes with course materials at the start of their courses, and were left largely to their own devices. But over the years, as technology has moved on so has the OU. Where better to learn about Distance Learning, I argued? As well as learning about the disciplines of Distance Learning, I got to be a Distance Learner myself.

I plan to try and capture some of the main learning points relevant to me and my practice whilst they are fresh in my mind. These reflections may well run to several blogs – maybe you’ll find them interesting too?

I’m kicking off by looking at the place where learning takes place – the virtual classroom, often called the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

As someone who has spent almost all of my ‘teaching’ career in the classroom, the face-to-face arena is where I have learned my trade. The social contact in the classroom plays a really important part in the way I do my job; being able to see the audience, judge their reactions to presentations/activities/group discussions, and then being able to adjust my teaching style to fit has become an instinctive matter for me. And the social contact also works well for students too – group discussions are very good for deepening learning, and the relationships that are developed between students often have carry-over benefits into the workplace.

Is there any way that this can be replicated online?

My short answer to that question is no, or at least not in the same way! The energy that can be generated in a lively classroom is well nigh impossible to create when you are separated in space and time from your audience. My three years as a Distance Learner have seen a few moments of high emotion, most notably when a ‘group’ online activity has been taking place and I have felt some sense of ownership of what was going on. But group activities are just as likely to lead to frustration, either because you can’t get others to join in, or because the group dynamics are hard to orchestrate when you can’t see what’s going on with others. On my most recent module, two of the group activities were abandoned due to lack of participation, and a third took place, but had very few participants.

The most important adjustment I  am struggling to come to terms with in the virtual classroom  is that the balance of power well and truly shifts from teacher to student. The student decides when, how, and how much they are going to contribute. If the material and activities are not of interest, there is not much the facilitator can do about it! Some might argue that the same is true in the real classroom – just because someone is present does not mean they are interested or are learning anything. But it does feel different!

My sense is that the way we deliver content and engage with our learners online has not yet come to terms with this new learning arena. Although there are many more organisations offering e-learning these days, its questionable just how qualified they are in the use of the new media for education. Few have got the pure track record of the Open University in delivering Distance Learning, and I’m sure the OU would be the first to acknowledge the challenges. The generation that is teaching today has learned its trade in a non-digital world, and is inevitably influenced by that. And the majority of (adult) learners have similarly developed learning skills in an era when the teacher was the fount of all knowledge. Both parties will have to learn new skills in this digital era – teachers seeing their role as guiding students to make good learning choices, and learners being more independent and choosing their own learning path.

Disappointing results of a study into student participation in e-learning (Garavan et al, 2010) are evidence how hard it can be to get engagement. In a large sample of students from 275 organisations they found that less than 50% of participants successfully completed their courses. Garavan and his colleagues observe that e-leaning is an isolating experience, and that this isolation is a major cause of attrition.

If teachers and students can’t make the shift to different ways of teaching and learning, its hard to see how the use of e-learning will deliver the results that our education systems need to deliver.

What’s your experience of participating in e-learning? Which methods of learning have you found work well for you, and which have been disappointing?

More later….


Garavan, T.N., Carbery, R., O’Malley, G., and O’Donnell, D., (2010) Understanding participation in e-learning in organizations: a large-scale empirical study of employees, International Journal of Training and Development 14:3, pp 155 – 168 ISSN 1360-3736