Three Pillars of e-Learning
e-Learning, or technology-enhanced learning (TEL) as it is called today, is a key concept for today's competitive higher education institutions. In fact, without e-learning some networked and virtual universities would not exist. Traditional campus-based universities as well as open and distance learning institutions such as the Open University had to redefine themselves to make room for technologies in their operations and provisions. Institutions are on the way of transforming their traditional roles and that of their members of staff and students. My involvement in state-of-the-art research into technology-enhanced learning, knowledge management, knowledge creation and transfer aims at pushing the envelop even further and innovating our approaches to education.
Although there is no unanimous definition of e-learning, the impact it has on Higher Education institutions can be divided into the following three areas:
To make e-learning an integral part of an institution it has to be firmly embedded within its business processes and strategic developments. This requires an enormous cultural change that not only affects lecturers as is often believed, but goes right from the top management to all sectors of the institution. It is a transformational change affecting everyone.
Cultural change on this scale takes time and effort. The usual picture is the bell curve with the fast adopters at the forefront of development, followed by the mainstream and tailed by those reluctant or unable to change. Mainstreaming a development always comes with a training requirement. A good strategy incorporates these training and migration issues.
This refers to the technology and the connectivity it provides. Proper e-Learning architecture is built on interoperability between different systems, for example an institution's student record system and a virtual learning environment. In the UK the e-learning architecture is underlying what is called a Managed Learning Environment or MLE. As the name suggests, MLEs allow institutions to better manage their (e-)learning through interconnected systems.
To make e-learning systems work together, interoperability standards have taken a prominent place in e-learning architecture developments. They play an important part in the connectivity of systems but also in future proofing the institutional MLE. Beyond the home institution, these emerging standards aim to be an important facilitator for inter-institutional collaboration.
A lot of attention is given to re-usable learning objects or RLOs. These are chunks of learning that can be easily shuffled around to create new paths of learning without re-inventing the wheel over and over again.
It is a fact that technology alone does not create learning. Because of the fast pace with which new tools are emerging, institutions are struggling to keep on top in their commitment to be pedagogically led not technology driven. In reality, though, effective use of a tool comes long after the tool has been created.
Blended learning has become a popular concept since more institutions want to combine their traditional teaching with an element of e-learning. Very few organisations today follow the online only trend that dominated the first enthusiastic approaches. This parallels the experience in e-commerce.
Currently, e-learning is mostly treated separately in terms of quality assurance, assessment, professional development and other areas. However, I firmly believe that at some stage it has to become integrated with generic teaching, in the same way as we do not treat the use of an overhead projector in class as a different approach. The important aspect is how learning is achieved, not which tools you use.
Quality assurance in e-learning is an important part for the success in this area. Online students need to have a comparable experience to those sitting in the classroom. It has become clearer that solely putting content online does not work for most students if there is no guidance and support. The MIT therefore had no business difficulties in offering all their learning material for free through the OCW initiative.
Quality of online delivery is closely connected to staff development in the area of online pedagogy. Special skills and awareness of the limitations of the technology are an important part in conducting successful e-learning courses. A rather new trend looks at learning activities and the mapping of these in an online environment. I discuss this in more detail together with learning objects.