Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?

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Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?

The worldwide E-Learning market is rapidly growing, estimated to reach $51.5 billion by 2016, growing at the year-on-year rate of 7.6%. The growth will be much more significantly disruptive in the coming years with regions such as Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe also jumping onto the bandwagon. Trends of Bring-Your-Own-Devices Sales of smart mobile devices is adding fuel to this fire. eLearning has become strategically important for various demographics:

  • Lifelong Corporate Education: Everyday changing contours of tech-spaces mean corporate employees need to be continuously trained to uptake newer technology, techniques and efficient methods in order for businesses to stay updated and in-competition with competitors.
  • Adult Learners: Poorly skilled staff will find it extremely difficult to be promoted or be replaced by cheaper fresher (or even robots) as they are unable to provide any substantial value-addition to their workplace in terms of business objectives.
  • Part-time Students & vocational Training students: Those balancing work-family-education triangle cannot easily devote dedicated college time.
  • Citizens without access to high-quality and well trained teachers: Poorly educated citizens have lower levels of productivity and can’t add to a nation’s well-being and riches.

There have been innumerable claims about the superiority of online-delivered learning over traditional classroom-methods. E-learning has been labelled as an excellent method of achieving personalised, self-paced, tailored learning that is user-adaptive yet affordable and accessible as well as interactive and engaging with newer methods such as gamification.
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Here is a brief analysis and a true-value check on 10 such potential benefits of eLearning to gauge the true picture of whether eLearning is revolutionary or just the classroom lecture transplanted online.
Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?

Self-paced

The Self-paced characteristic of an e-learning environment refers to the environment in which the learners themselves determine the pace and timing of content delivery. Learners who are committed and have adequate self-awareness of their learning style, can perform well in such a self-regulated environment. Yet, there is a vast majority of students who may require the support of a teacher, available in an F2F environment, at cognitive and emotional level. A learner’s success in a self-paced environment requires self-directedness, experience, readiness to learn and problem-solving orientation towards learning.

Learner can control the learning environment and develop habit of active learning with self-responsibility, provides just-in-time information to update their knowledge, skills and abilities, frees up teachers time that can be devoted towards learners who need more cognitive and emotional support.

However, not all learners possess the necessary self-awareness and motivation to learn independently. Also at times, a complete lack of control can lead to procrastination and inability to complete required Learning Objectives.

Flexible

Online education have been hailed to offer the most flexibility to its learners in terms of location and time of earning a degree. This is extremely attractive to non-traditional students who have commitments of family work and jobs and might not otherwise be able to attend a full-time on-campus program. Learners have the flexibility to log-in to their classroom, complete assessments, and participate in discussions and to connect with their tutors at any time of the day. Students can visit the course content, lecture videos and schedule assessments in a flexible manner to fit into their regular schedule. But the classroom walls have not become a 100% permeable.

Any effective e-learning course will still enforce deadlines in terms of an overall semester span, time limits to complete the weekly readings and to submit the assessments, albeit not too stringent and frequent as the traditional classrooms. This is both a boon and a curse to the learners. While learners do not have to juggle between submission deadlines and their regular work/family affairs, it can also feed into a procrastination cycle with endless slogging towards the end of the term to finish off on time.

Anywhere, Anytime

The anywhere, anytime eLearning phenomenon has gained wide popularity, especially for information hungry and impatient millennial learners who learn more through experience and exploration than through conventional classrooms. With a growing ownership of digital mobile devices amongst students, institutions have started harnessing the power of these devices for interactive content delivery as a natural extension for the traditional classroom. Present-generation learners appreciate such hyper connectivity with online instructors. Yet, a true realisation of anywhere, anytime scenario maybe far-fetched.

There is still a hesitation in harnessing mobile devices as collaborative tools for education. The creation of rich media and interactive content that can be periodically sent as practical learning solution to students requires more than just traditional usage of mobile and digital devices for chats, messaging, calls and searching information. This will prove to be costly money-and-time-wise for teachers, who will spend hours composing answers, feedbacks, recording audio and video as well as designing rich media. Interoperability will be an additional concern.

Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?

Personalised Learning

Personalised learning refers to the model that is tailored for learners’ progress in ways specific to individual learners’ characteristics. It involves offerings such as differentiated learning activities, customized course offerings and personal goal-setting. The attractive feature of such a tailored learning approach is that it can help all learners to comfortably advance in consonance with their own pace, style and method of learning instead of struggling to fit the “gifted” as well as “slow” learners under the same blanket of instructions and assessments.

Differentiation in instructions, pace and methods can be effective intermediation, yet all learners must ultimately be able to demonstrate a set of competencies to ensure that they are career ready. Another growing concern over personalised learning is that it may go beyond differentiation of just pace, method and style of learning and ultimately to differences in expectations. Thus, it might reduce expectations of teachers as well as learners in terms of what can be achieved.

This might ultimately negatively impact the outcome by making the “slow” learners comfortable to settle at a lower level of outcome as opposed to working with them to improvise with healthy motivation, competition and a positive peer pressure to keep up with the classroom. Instructors may in fact stop taking any such extra initiative to push students to perform to their full capabilities, every single lesson, and every single day.

Affordability

E-learning has proven to be a viable, low-cost alternative to F2F model, especially in the present times of recessions and education budget deficits. Online learning has emerged as a great platform to utilise the education professionals who are otherwise leaving the industry because of layoffs, retirements or dissuaded by lower salary incentives. The transparent billing system affords accountability and incentivises online tutors, as well as makes it affordable to deliver instructions to students in remote rural areas without incurring a huge fixed sum. The online platform also makes it possible to recruit best teachers from all over the globe to deliver instructions in already teacher-thin subjects such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as well as foreign languages. While eLearning may bridge the gap between the teachers and students globally, finding a standard teaching personnel is in itself a bigger task.

There are significant costs in terms of indirect infrastructure development that are often not accounted for. On the expenses side, one needs to consider preparation of engaging and interactive e-learning course material, technology training for instructors, installation of support software as well as technology, devices and network expenditures. Short-term philanthropist stints might subsidise developmental expenses however over long-run operating profitability concerns may result in rising tuition.

Accessibility

If a differently abled learner has to independently engage with an online learning web-resource or software, it will involve managing files and folders, using email, participating in forums, as well as assessment submissions and engaging with the feedback systems and other complex features, without the use of assistive technology. That means accessibility must be in-built within the resource/software. Accessibility needs to be kept in mind while designing an e-learning web-resource/online course content/support software. These accessibility requirements must be specified in the designing stages itself rather than entailing a fix-the-code procedure when a differently abled user registers. The most basic tips for making any course 508 compliant would be:

  • Standardised keyboard navigations such as the “Tab” key for primary navigation command.
  • Making videos compliant by adding descriptions, sub-text, transcripts of videos and other text prompts.
  • Voice over feature for visually impaired to read-out loud the information displayed on screen with narration speed control.
  • Narrations for images and graphics displayed with adequate descriptions of images by using features such as alt-text.
  • Options for text sizing configurations and using appropriate fonts.
  • Deliver contents in mixed-media such as video, audio, animations, text-based rather than using a single format throughout. This will even help to make the content more engaging for all learners.
  • Avoid adding complex interactive elements or navigation styles.

Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?
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Adaptive

Adaptive learning essentially puts the gear in learners’ hand as they can move quickly through what they know and spend more time in focusing on new areas or areas where they are lacking. This proactive evaluation helps students in self-evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. With such a continuous self-evaluation, learners also get higher confidence when they master the areas that they struggled with. Once the troublesome areas are pointed out students can seek extra assistance with those areas and increase their performance metrics. This can rapidly translate into higher retention and graduation rates. Making allowances for prior working experience, training and educational experiences can help corporate learners to be able to move through the semester maze faster and get directed information in terms of the exact specialization and competencies they are looking to master.

Recognised

Although the learner base for online learning platforms has tremendously grown over the years, many employers are not yet sold on the idea of hiring employees with online degree, with many preferring a traditional degree program or at least a hybrid. Even still, with many new generation hires coming in with online degrees, online course certifications and other skills-collected-over-internet, employers will soon be able to compare the competencies of online-learning students. Also, in the corporate training culture, the push to explore MOOCs and online open coursewares for growth and re-skiling is coming from within as online learning as proven to be an effective least resistance path for adult learners who are looking to balance their work-life-education responsibilities. The negative perception of eLearning programs has been an effect of the fraudulent diploma shoppers who have been able to pick up degrees with a full wallet without demonstrating requisite college-ready/career-ready abilities. The quality push has also come in from well-recognized brands such as MIT, Yale, Stanford and many others offering online programs.

An employer or recruitment manager’s comfort with an online degree will also depend on their own familiarity with the e-learning format as well as their own perception of the institution backing the degree. Despite the growing popularity of online courses, it serves to be cautious about the program’s accreditation and brand recognition. Learners might face problems with employers in their first-time job searching but eventually their experience will speak for them.

Equitable

E-learning is touted to widen the participation of many non-traditional, lifelong learners as well as those who are depraved of quality instructional benefits in higher education. E-learning will not only lower barriers of time and space but also of affordability and accessibility to high-quality educational and research content to learners in any corner of the world by bringing top-ranking educational institutions and universities on board with programs such as MOOCs and develop competencies to make them college and career ready on an equal footing with full-time traditional campus enrolled students. However, there is still a considerable digital divide in terms of affordability of broadband internet services and sophisticated computers and mobile devices. Learning technology is particularly beneficial for providing campus-learning opportunities for non-traditional students by lowering time and space rigidity.  However, this argument can be equally labelled as overenthusiastic as well. Language barriers are more pronounced at K-12 level since school level education is based on social and cultural specifics as well as delivered in native language. Also there is a dearth of required qualified manpower and a gap in skills required to engage with sophisticated e-learning technology platforms, as well as technological infrastructure in the learner’s countries such as broadband access, high-resolution screens, and ownership of mobile devices. The said gaps have also been found to accentuate across gender and generations. The cost of translation may be too high to scale it across the languages, grades and subjects. Thus this equity claim of e-learning can only be fulfilled at a higher education level assuming generality of content and foreign language skills of learners to be alike. Also the level of technology and e-infrastructure required to support quality e-learning is prevalent at university level. Thus to deliver a well-designed course to cross the digital divide will require much more standardization and financial resource allocation for infrastructure.

Ten promises of eLearning: unrealized or unrealistic ?

Gamification

Most e-learning models today, ranging from simpler MOOCs to much more complex variants have evolved some elements of gamification in them. Gamification is the practice of applying elements of game playing such as points score, competition, team cooperation, badges, level ups etc. to the field of online learning. So as to encourage engagement of online learners and motivate them with a constant “what’s next?”

Platforms such as Duolingo, Coursera, ClassDojo, Socrative and many more have already taken advantage of interactive and engaging systems of ‘lives’ ‘points’ ‘currency’, ‘level ups’, ‘timed quizzes’ ‘badges’ etc. The basic premise underlying this system is that gaming elements make learning more fun, interactive as well as keeps learners motivated and engaged to keep progressing through the learning maze.

However, in regards to the real-effects, the reviews have been mixed. Not everyone, however, is so positive. E-learning critics have been pointing out that Gamification has been replaced by mere ‘pointsification’ of everything – simply assigning points/scores and maintaining a leader board based on them, instead of engaging actionably with them.

The impulse to merely top the leader board might just die within a few weeks (after the gamers have tried on all hacks and cheats) without translating into effective learning. Only the e-learners who are intrinsically motivated to learn will remain committed. Thus unless the eLearning instructors are able to generate daily diversified gaming experiences to keep the gamers as well as learners motivated, gamification will fail to bring about an effective e-learning revolution.

Have you taught or enrolled in an eLearning program? Share with us your story of what you expected from your eLearning course and what was delivered. 
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