Saturday 17 September 2011

After E-Learning

E-learning is dead.

Where has it taken us? What does education look like now? What's next?

The "campaign to get teachers to use the internet" which started about 15 years ago has succeeded: teachers use the internet. Whilst the utopian hopes for transformation of the education system have not been realised, education in the world of the internet is a different place from education before it. And whilst many of those utopian hopes might not have been realistic, they gave the campaign for the use of the internet drive, political support and money.

In terms of understanding where we are now, I think it is useful to think of the stages of the evolution of educational technology. As with most technology initiatives (as Illich tells us!), the early days are the most interesting and possibly the most beneficial (particularly for the innovators). In the early days, a few teachers discovered technology and saw the educational potential in it. Nobody else knew what they were doing: it was a kind of 'black magic' which tended to capture the imagination of others, even if they had little understanding of where it might lead.

So a teacher would bring into class their newly-acquired personal computer, or they would set up a discussion forum on the University's mainframe (which had up till then only been used for running Fortran programs of physicists and mathematicians). It was new, it felt revolutionary. No wonder people were inspired to think that the world of education could be transformed!

The next phase however was characterised by a growing realisation of institutional threats from the technology as well as opportunities. Managers started to take note of what their innovative teachers were doing - particularly as teacher-driven websites started popping-up served from desktop machines running in classrooms. Whilst recognising that much of this was very exciting and important, the emerging concerns were:
a. how can technological practices be made accessible so everyone can do it?
b. how can technological practices be organised and coordinated?
c. how can technological practices be managed so as to reduce the risk to the institution?

Firewalls, Virtual Learning Environments, massive PC roll-out programmes, Access policy management and an emerging ICT curriculum were the result.

The universalising of internet-based practices were the principal legacy of the VLE - albeit, the main practice being the use of the technology as a 'giant photocopier'! PC rollouts created huge and largely new management problems for institutions. These problems were dealt with by leveraging the technologies to manage technological innovation (often, this effort was led by those early-adopting innovators who, having benefited from the freedom of experimentation without interference, now found themselves organising ways to restrict the freedom of others!). The result was a curtailment of technological freedom within the institution.

Institutional curtailment went hand-in-hand with the rise in power of personal technology. Increasingly, there was an emerging disparity between institutional technology and personal technology. Individuals could do far more with their own technology than they could within the institution. Along with this process, and helped by the development of XML-based 'services' on the web, global services (run initially as start-ups, but often ending-up as global corporations) appealed to individuals by offering functionality which mirrored the provision of educational institutions, but which seemed to work better and be more effective, whilst not curtailing freedoms in the ways that institutions had.

This process gave rise to debates about the 'locus of control' of technology in learning, otherwise known as the 'Personal Learning Environment'. Shift the provision of technology outside the institution, so learners could organise themselves with their own technology for their own learning journeys. This was not a new idea: similar pedagogical exhortations had been made in the 1960s before the internet, but the internet gave it new impetus, and finding resonance in the work of Illich who advocated the 'learning web' as an alternative to the educational institution.

But the PLE muddied an already confusing picture. Teachers found themselves in the position of being curtailed by their institutions in the use of technology, but at the same time facing big organisational problems if they tried to use personal technologies with their learners because of the difficulties in being able to coordinate learning, and the fact that not all their learners were confident or happy subscribing to global services whose corporate agendas were somewhat opaque. Global services were aimed at individuals: they did not meet the needs of local groups or communities.

More importantly, the types of activities that teachers could organise for their learners tended to become focused on text-based discussions. Each learner could now be relied on to have a device for text-based discussion, and so learning activities involved individuals with their personal technology participating in discussions. Or at least, some of them. Indeed, because discussion of this sort could be done online, there was a decreasing need to meet together. This trend suggested that those saying "the campus is dead" had a point.

But online chat was simply the most available of the modes of engagement. It was the mode of engagement that could be accommodated most easily by the VLE or PLE. All that had to happen was agreement about which environment was to be used (e.g. VLE of Facebook?).

The relationship between message and medium is interesting here. The message has always been shaped by the medium. Before the internet, the classroom was the principal frame. Early computers expanded the medium and created new possibilities. After e-learning, the frame of what is possible is what is most readily available in the technologies provided: typically this is online chat (either asynchronous or synchronous).

After e-learning, technology can actually do much more than that. WebSockets and new developments in HTML make possible real-time engagements in ways which have not been possible before. Online gaming can bring together people in shared activities from across the world. Remote control can allow mass participation in experiments and artistic events. Haptic interaction can provide opportunities for physical engagement without physical co-presence. Video provides ways of personal revealing which go beyond textual communication. Hardware hacking allows individuals ways of interacting with their own physical devices. Biological hacking may be the next and (possibly more interesting) development in this sort of trend.

But we're stuck with chat because of what technology has done to our institutions. We're stuck with chat because global services don't meet the needs of local communities, only individuals to whom they wish to sell their services. We're stuck with chat because we've now conditioned ourselves to expect chat from e-learning, just as we expected a lecture in the classroom.

So we're ready for the new guerilla campaign. We're ready for the equivalent of the teacher who brings their PC into the class in 1982. It is the teacher who finds new ways of bringing their learners together and breaking the spell of 'me-first' chat technology. It is the teacher who creates the cool biological robot and invites their students to participate in controlling it. It is the teacher who conceives of online musical or dramatic performance with improvised participation from their learners. It is the teacher who does something remarkable and finds a way of sharing it to create a collective experience for their students.

Currently, e-learning gets in the way of this sort of thing. But my wish is that the real-time web (WebSockets, etc) might provide a way of cutting through the technological red-tape and create a new moment in time when everything seems possible again.

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