A new report has been published by Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates with the superb title The State of E-Learning in Canadian Universities, 2011: If Students Are Digital Natives, Why Don’t They Like E-Learning? It's a study of Canadian students' attitudes to e-learning and finds, not surprisingly that today's students are not so enthusiastic towards universities' net-based courses as we would expect. Despite growing up with the net and labelled as "digital natives" by generalising parents, they are not automatically attracted to the e-learning on offer.
It's easy to draw the conclusion that traditional classroom education is, after all, best since the students in the survey seem to prefer it to net-based studies. The best online resources in their opinion are recorded lectures and they prefer printed books to e-books on the whole. Traditionalists will heave a sigh of relief and say "I told you so" and we can all get back behind the lectern and keep lecturing.
However the report ends with some very relevant thoughts. Maybe students' lukewarm attitude to e-learning is because the e-learning on offer is simply not very compelling or well designed? What if the e-learning of today is simply a pale electronic version of traditional teaching and therefore is always compared to the "real thing." Maybe we haven't actually changed anything, we've just put the classroom on the net without much thought of why we might want to do that.
"Another way to read the data is simply that the e-learning resources being deployed in Canadian universities aren’t of high enough quality to really engage a very digitally-savvy student population. Perhaps with more investment not just in the user interface but in the integration of in-person and online learning, e-learning resources can move from being a technology that helps students find alternatives to being in class to a technology that actually enhances and is additive to their inclass experience."
I think there is also a comfort factor behind the students' attitudes. They have been raised on classroom teaching and are used to lectures and studying to pass exams. The real potential of using the net in education demands different skills and a new approach to teaching and learning that is more challenging. The e-learning that this report examines represents a traditional linear model based largely on information transfer and self study.
As long as e-learning is simply an electronic version of a face-to-face activity it will remain a pale copy, a next-best-thing instead of something new and exciting. It's the same with many other digital phenomena. If we define digital online publishing as simply e-books, electronic versions of "real" books, we're missing the point. When the electronic version transcends the original and becomes something else then we will be able to see the benefits.
Work in progress.