Category: Learning

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

My Brain Hurts!

My holiday reading this summer included a book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, a fascinating book which looks at how the internet is affecting the way we think, read and remember.

In the 20 years of its existence, the internet has had a remarkable impact on most peoples’ lives and in particular on the way that we communicate and interact. In this book, Carr has looked at whether there is anything about this revolutionary medium that has deeper implications. I think there are messages here for anyone involved in education and training, for students, their parents and researchers, and also for leaders who are looking for their team members to be productive and creative. For myself, I was interested to understand how the internet might be affecting learning and development – a particular focus of mine. On the face of it, the internet is a boon for learning, making information and learning communities readily accessible to many people, but are its benefits balanced by any disadvantages? And if so, should we be doing anything about it?

Carr’s is a scholarly book that tracks the essential roles that language, literacy, and reading have played in human development, particularly in the 500 years since the Gutenberg press democratized  reading for the masses. Some would argue that the internet gives even more people even greater access to information than is possible via books, but there is an important difference in the medium of the internet, which centres on the attention we pay to material delivered that way.

A critical step in the conversion of information into knowledge and wisdom that can be applied may not be obvious at first glance. For information to be useful to us, a period of deep thinking has to take place. New information enters the brain through the short term, working, memory. That information becomes useable when it moves from our short term (limited capacity) to our long term (infinitely capacious) memory. We must put effort into creating new or revised mental models that incorporate any new data. This can only be done in a gradual way, and requires attention and reflection; we need to take control of our thinking process and this is done by applying focus.

The bad news for learners is that focus is something that humans instinctively find difficult. We are much more inclined to let ourselves be interrupted – after all, in the early days of man’s existence, being alert to both threats and opportunities may well have been the characteristic which ensured the survival of the species. The ability to read and reflect is a relatively new skill for humankind and not one that comes naturally.

We find ourselves today in an Aladdin’s cave of potentially limitless interruptions; text messages, emails, twitter feeds, rss feed readers, facebook messages, the list is endless! And the interruption goes further when you consider the way text is presented on the internet – multimedia presentations of all kinds, and the ‘helpful’ addition of hyperlinks to enrich our reading. No wonder it is almost impossible to persuade young people to read books these days – they’ve got much more rewarding things to spend their time on! Unfortunately, all of these distractions end up diminishing our learning experience because they block and overwhelm our short term memory, serving up tit bits of data in bite-sized chunks that reward our desire for new things, but not converting into anything useful.

The more sinister undertone to Carr’s findings is that this shift in the way we use our brains actually alters the brain’s neural pathways. Neural pathways that are heavily used come to dominate the way we think, and those that are underused diminish – use it or lose it, as the old saying goes!! Thinking about my own working habits, I can see the lack of focus creeping into my daily practice. Leaving open applications like Twitter, email and Facebook which tell me when something new has been posted is energizing, but distracts me from any activity that requires concentration. I often find that I have wiled away several hours following links from one blog, article or website to another, without anything meaningful having been achieved. Many times, I forget how I actually got started on a train of thought. And having got into the habit of summarizing interesting snippets in Twitter means that I tend to reduce my thoughts to catchy sound-bites – hardly exercising my grey matter to any real extent. Oh dear;-( Something has got to change!

If you are a leader, an educator, a learner or a parent, I’d highly recommend that you read the book, but in the meantime here are a few of the resolutions that I have decided to incorporate into my daily routine;

First of all, I am separating my communications and interactive activities from my reflective activities – putting aside at least half of my available work time for thinking that requires focus.

Secondly, I will always have a new serious/business book ‘on the go’ and I will discipline myself to spending time collecting and using my thoughts in some tangible way (hence this blog!). I might still Twitter about it a bit, but that won’t be my only reflection – honest!!

Thirdly, I will occasionally buy myself a paper version of the online newspaper that I subscribe to. The paper version will induce deeper reading than its online ‘cousin’!

Fourthly, I will resist the temptation to complete my sudoku puzzles (a favorite hobby of mine) using my digital version of the game – the help that this version gives me is actually getting in the way of my being able to improve my own skills – a common problem with digital help features.

Every generation is suspicious of the inventions and new habits of the next, and the internet is no different in that. On the other hand, its advantages are many and undeniable. But this book makes a strong case that if the internet really is going to accelerate the development of the human intellect,  we would be well advised to nurture our hard earned deep thinking skills. I, for one, am resolved to do my bit to hang onto mine;-)


Nicholas Carr, (2010) The Shallows – how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Atlantic Books, London