The Power of e-Learning
It’s been my privilege and pleasure to work in the e-learning field for the last 7 year. Somehow, having a teacher as a mother and a computer scientist as a father, it was kind of a natural outcome that I’d be an e-learning specialist. Getting to know both first-world and third-world educational mechanism (I’m Belgian, lived in Belgium, Germany, the UK and Spain and have now been living mostly in Perú for the last 4 years) was a tremendous experience, and allowed me to view the educational problem as a whole (not without a few great talks from TED confirming my views were not singular illusions). I also got the opportunity to meet with a series of people involved in the One Laptop Per Child project. This whole experience made me realize how much e-Learning (being understood as the provision of automated and interactive course content, be it remotely or locally) can really help education. As such, I’d like to share with you a few commonly found misjudgments about e-learning and why I think they are wrong.
Misjudgments about e-Learning
Fear of machines
The thing is, people fear computers. At best, they think they will never be able to use them the way they should, at worst, they think computers will finally make their work obsolete, triggering their unemployment and a life of poverty. The truth is, in 7 years of implementing e-learning platforms, I have never seen a company or institution obsoleting an employee because of anything related to e-Learning. In fact, the organizations implementing e-Learning end up growing faster, generating access to a wider audience, and finally an increase of staff required to handle this additional audience. e-Learning is not to be feared, it should be embraced and integrated, at a reasonable pace. As a science fiction put it, “If any teacher can be replaced by a computer, they probably should”. The problem is not whether you’ll be replaced or not, it is whether you like your job or not, and make learning a great experience for your students.
Obsoleting human role of teachers
Most of the time, teachers fear this will destroy the human character of in-class teaching, when in fact it is the exact opposite. As the implementations grow in reach, courses are taught differently. The teacher moves from a teaching role to a support role: a role that will allow him to reach better his full potential and that will improve the quality of learning of his students, ending up in higher achievements in the classroom. This, in fact, gives the teacher a more human role, as Salman Khan explains in a TED video about his Khan Academy project.
Quality of education
Yet another fear is that the education provided through e-Learning will be mediocre, at best, because computers cannot reach the inner sense of the learners and answer all their questions. This fear disappears after a one-day training about e-Learning. Once you start using a well-structured system to order and create courses, you realize this couldn’t be more wrong: structuring your courses inside an e-Learning platform make them easier to improve iteratively, easier to share with other teachers to improve as a teaching community, and easier to distribute to students and gather feedback (nominative or anonymous), resulting in faster improvements all over.
Another aspect of an e-Learning system is that most boring and pedagogically useless tasks, if you are a teacher, can be automated: you will be capable of developing auto-evaluation tests that your students can repeat to practice their understanding of the course. Correction of those tests will be automatic, resulting in a 50% to 75% decrease on your correction work (you will still need to review the lowest results and comment on them). This decrease allows you to focus on writing better tests and reviewing the redaction of your courses, so that students will learn better and faster. You will not work less, you will work better, get higher success rates with your students, which will finally improve your reputation and generate corresponding advantages.
This improved bettering capability is often overlooked, as the first reaction is only fear. However, once the fear barrier has been passed, some guidance will help you to understand how to make it easy to improve your content (guidance to be sought from e-Learning training/consulting providers).
Not cost effective
Of course, it all depends on how you are willing to use your system. Some organizations use e-Learning as a complement to their normal teaching, to enable access by a wider public, so the return on investment for them is really easy to measure. Others reduce costs of classical teaching by limiting printed materials and increasing rooms availability. We’ve recently been reported US$14,000 savings by not printing cooking lessons’ material for 800 students, in only 4 months time! The most difficult to calculate ROI comes from organizations implementing e-Learning to offer a better infrastructure to their students and avoid students leakage by getting leveled with their competitors. This is generally due to getting late in face of the competition, and the objective their is not a quick ROI calculation, but rather not getting obsoleted as a whole organization.
e-Learning platforms crash all the time
Apparently, many e-Learning consumers report e-Learning platforms are unreliable and tend to be unavailable when they need them. To be fair, that might happen with any platform. This is why you need the right service provider to help you. Many platforms are available for free (yes, that’s $0), but the system must always be provided by a reliable service provider. In our experience, and for a 7500 students university (now 11,000), our system has been down for a total of 12 hours (unplanned downtime) in 3 years time (36 months). That’s about 20 minutes per *month* of unavailability, and it was mostly due to changing the whole infrastructure to handle more users.
e-Learning systems are used to “spy” over the teachers
While it is true that systems like that generally make a lot of tools available to track the users (teachers *and* students), the initial objective is only to make it easier for everybody to help and be helped by others. If you fear somebody will use that to spy on you, this probably means you would fear any kind of peer review and, as such, you are concerned yourself about doing a good job. An e-Learning platform will give you tools and guidelines to stop worrying and get out of this unnecessary fear.
Useless for developing countries (where it’s most needed)
Another, more moral, misjudgment, is that e-Learning cannot reach developing countries because it would require infrastructure that is not yet available to these countries (i.e.: reliable power supply and Internet connexions). Well our recent experience in Peru and Uruguay, as well as a series of TED videos about the OLPC project tend to prove the contrary: even the more rudimentary access to learning content and technology will allow students to learn faster and better. This is the whole concept of OLPC in Peru, for example. Following the now 2-years old results of a public exam of the teachers population in Peru, only 4% of new teachers had the required level of reading and mathematics in a population of 18000 new teachers candidates. This is believed to be a representative figure (10%) of the total number of teachers in Peru (about 280,000). If the teachers do not have the level required to teach the kids, what is the solution? Only re-teach the teachers and hope this time it will work better? How much time will that take? Another solution is to provide the students with sufficient learning content and at least provide them with the possibility to learn by themselves. In Peru, the One Laptop Per Child project smartly provides 20,000 texts in Spanish from Wikipedia on every XO laptop. Another TED video, by Sugata Mitra, explains how kids teach themselves when provided with the opportunity to learn (and Educational Technology). There is also a nice video about the results of the OLPC project in Uruguay by the government responsible Miguel Brechner Frey (as well as a series of videos of teachers in Uruguay using our platform).
Complexity of systems
Finally, people in first contact with e-Learning systems (which generally involves passing through the previous barriers, but sometimes is taken as a “true fact” through peers comments, without even putting the effort of trying it by oneself. In any case, Chamilo (the platform we develop) is widely recognized in our user base as being much easier to use than any other e-Learning platform, simply because it is more intuitive and does not require much training to get started. Some have commented that moving from [other platform] to Chamilo was like evolving from water to air, reducing training time for teachers from 40 to just 7h!
It is difficult to explain just how important ease of use is, to the whole e-Learning implementation business. Not only does it drastically reduce cost of implementation, it also accelerates implementations, boosts content creation (teachers feel they can create almost anything easily) and increases students participation (whatever their age).
It has become increasingly clearer to me over the years that, by implementing e-Learning and empowering teachers and learners, the quality, availability, “engageability” and completeness of content will increase drastically. The first implementation is the most complicated of all, because it requires an open mind, but the paradigm shift, from “teaching teacher” to “supporting and inspiring teacher”, can be a very smooth progression to which any teacher can participate and contribute at his pace. Furthermore, the progressive increase in availability of shareable content (see the Khan Academy) will make it easier for teachers around the world to re-use high quality content and to contribute to building missing content for a complete “learnable” resources database.
There are many ways to start implementing an e-Learning system, and all of them can be successful if you have the right partner. Let us know if you need help at firstname.lastname@example.org.