Without doubt the UK government is right behind a drive to get teachers to use more learning technologies, with an emphasis on online learning, but there are mixed views as to whether their approach will achieve their objectives. Critics’ say that mandating online learning will cause a wider gulf in the digital divide, there will be more inequalities within education generally, that reducing the cost of delivery through e-learning and teachers who are inadequately trained will drive down quality. You might be surprised to read that as a learning technology consultant and the MD of Elearning Marketplace I agree that if learning technologies are not implemented correctly these outcomes can be a reality. It is my experience that learning technologies massively enhance learning where used to fulfil a need, and not used for usage sake. Also that online learning can deliver better long term outcomes with improved knowledge retention than face to face training in many cases, but not all. This is backed up by a recent study conducted by The Research Institute of America that found that e-Learning has the power to increase information retention rates by up to 60%.
The discussion about the challenges that education is facing, and will face, in the next 10 to 20 years is a global topic, along with what part e-learning should play. Back in 2009 Singapore’s Minister of Education hosted an International Education roundtable discussion with ministers and senior representatives from six school systems around the world. The report of their discussions says that they focussed on examples of effective and innovative ICT use for learning, and on the challenge of bringing about system-wide effective use of ICT; which sounds very similar to what the UK government is saying today about post 16 education. They reported that the best schools are beginning to embed ICT in the day-to-day experience in every classroom.
Way back in 1999 a study in India to find out if adaptive e-content could tailor instruction to students’ individual needs found that 90% of students showed improved learning. With this sort of outcome it’s surprising that in the last 15 years we haven’t seen a much larger increase in the use of adaptive content on or off-line.
Educational experts from a range of countries were recently asked to respond to the Guardian newspaper’s question ‘can e-learning really deliver an education revolution across the globe?’ Quite a number of them highlighted the same points as the critics views above, however, they all pretty much agreed that e-learning is and will continue to provide incredible opportunities. They spoke of the low cost of e-learning as opposed to face to face training and that this provides the potential to educate the non-engaged. Also that it has the potential to enable marginalised groups to access education, but only if the infrastructure is in place.
It is hard to dispute the global evidence that e-learning is a positive method of delivering education as a blended approach. Some of the estimations for future growth of e-learning however are in my view ambitious, such as 50% of all college courses will be delivered on line by 2019 and that the e-learning industry is going to be worth over 100 billion by next year. I don’t believe that in the UK we are going to reach 50% of online courses by 2019, and I’d say that this has been backed up by training providers being unhappy about the requirement to deliver 10% online in the next academic year. In the 2014 CIPD Learning and Talent Development survey 23% of respondents predicted there will be continued growth in e-learning, down from 29% last year. There certainly is evidence of growth in what we are already seeing across the world, such as in the Online Learning survey last year which found that online course enrolments in the US increased at rates far in excess of those of overall higher education. Also that the number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million. Interestingly 77% of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face to face, which should alleviate some of the fears of those in the UK who are concerned that quality will be negatively affected.
When it comes to e-learning reaching less engaged learners and enabling the disadvantaged to learn as they haven’t been able to in the past, I was interested to read that the United Nations Institute for Training and Research recently reported on UNITAR’s online course on International Water Law. They said that the course has received 1,219 applications from 115 countries since February 2013. Of the 1,219 applications, over 82% have come from developing and least developed countries demonstrating that those in these countries in need of training are engaging with e-learning to access the training that previously has been out of reach. The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education reports on ICT and digital inclusion projects from around the world. One such project in Hungary is the Digital Equal Opportunities project which identified that a wide range of innovative teaching methods are required and these should be based on active and experimental learning and aim to increase student engagement and improve results. Showing that we are not alone in the UK, it goes on to say that one obstacle is that there are gaps between ICT-literate and ICT-illiterate teachers, recognising the need for professional development.
Certainly many employers are reaping the benefits of e-learning in the UK with over 84% using it for training and development according to a survey of 200 employers last year. The UK’s Higher Education is now joining the world’s top universities offering free online courses. In September ’13 the BBC announced ‘The UK’s biggest online university project has been launched, with more than 20 universities offering free courses’. Within this report there was also the suggestion from the Department for Education that free online courses known as MOOCs could be used for vocational courses for students in further education colleges and sixth forms in England.
When working with training providers I must admit I do often get a response to the question asking teachers how they are using technology that a particular subject, qualification, environment or cohort of learners do not lend themselves to the use of technology. Sometimes an online course is not the best solution for a learner, but there are so many wonderful interactive games, quizzes and videos etc. that can engage a wide range of learners that the technology to meet the need can usually be identified. Generally though, I want to challenge the view that technology is not suitable as it’s often down to a lack of knowledge and experience in using technology. This lack of knowledge and skills in developing and delivering blended models of provision has been identified by the UK government and governments all over the world. The UK government should look to other countries that have heavily invested in programmes of professional development for teachers, to enable them to embrace learning technologies.
So in conclusion, I think that e-learning can successfully contribute to a globally efficient, quality and cost effective education system with the appropriate infrastructure and teacher training in place. It’s not a quick win and implementing a blended model of delivery is not easy; it’s not just a case of sticking some e-learning on a virtual learning management system and away you go, but there is a very rewarding return on investment of time and money when it’s done right.
McKinsey Education Report on the International Education Roundtable: 7 July 2009, Singapore
Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States
The 2013 online learning survey
The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education
United Nations Institute for Training and Research
eLearning trends for 2013 by Kineo
eElearningindustry.com: Top 10 e-learning statistics for 2014 you need to know
CIPD Learning and Talent Development survey 2014