Saturday, September 11, 2004

If CMS ≠ eLearning, what does?

This post is an extension of a dialog that's started with Tama Leaver at Ponderance about my post on course management systems. Tama said:
I must say though, I'm not even sure if I know what online learning is: at best it's an ever-mutating practice that never seems at all prepared to let you pin it down (not to suggest that as a concept it has its own agency, only that as it's enacted, it takes on different forms every day!)
As well it should, say I!

Maybe online learning is a confusing phrase because it implies that the learning is somehow done online. Learning takes place in a brain. Our sloppy use of the word "online" is meant to distinguish learning that happens while the learner is engaged in a computer-mediated activity, particularly one that involves networked information or communication. The range of activities that could fall under this heading is enormous. Is looking up a word in an online dictionary online learning? What about completing a drill-and-kill exercise in Blackboard's assessment engine?

On the flip-side, is writing a blog necessarily a learning activity? While there's always some minimal value in getting some students to do almost any kind of writing or reading, I've seen plenty of blogs where a secondary student writes entry after entry that read like this:

September 10
I'm so bored.

September 9
I don't know why I'm writin this thing. Teach says I has to. So here it is.

Unless the curriculum seeks to teach students how to be miserable while navel-gazing, I'm not sure I get the point. Even if students need to practice writing about anything, it seems to me that they ought to be engaging deeply with something other than their personal ennui.

Learning is learning. We don't need to pin down what online learning is, because the "online" part is merely a description of the context, which changes minute by minute.

If we focus too much on the novelty of technology, we can lose track of the underlying learning objectives. Sometimes we get into the habit of saying, "Here is a cool technology; how could I use this with students?" Instead, we should be thinking, "My students seem to have trouble doing something." (The something could be "expressing original analysis in their writing," which might argue for a blog or discussion list; or the something might be "understanding this microeconomic theory," which might argue for a game or animation.) The medium for the resulting activity is secondary to the decision of what type of activity will help students meet a learning objective.

Given unlimited resources (ha!), including time (ha!), there's virtually no online learning activity that couldn't take place in some analog form. For instance, a classroom could keep a group journal on a bulletin board or by passing around papers and notes to classmates. Those of us who blog understand the advantages of the blog in reducing overhead and extending the community of learners, which is why some of us are telling our peers, "You might want to think about using this." Our explanation of our rationale needs to be a part of the recommendation, though. Otherwise the skeptical will just think we're offering a solution in search of a problem.

Using a hammer is not always carpentry.
Carpentry is often easier with a hammer.
(How's that for pithy reductionism?)


Blogger Tama said...

Eric, in reply to this: "On the flip-side, is writing a blog necessarily a learning activity?". As you point out about the vast number of things which fall into the "online learning" umbrella of categories, the same (albeit in a different way) is also true of blogs. Blogs in teaching and learning (T&L) situations can sometimes be basically "set it up, write daily, because writing improves clarity of thinking", but this is fairly rare, I think, and most T&L blogs are more structured due to (a) initial guidelines set by the course coordinator (or similar); (b) task-specific blogging where students have specific activities they are asked to blog about (which is what my Self.Net course entails) and (c) students write very differently when their 'real' identity is linked to their blog-identity, which is most often the case for T&L blogs. Indeed, I find students are less concerned with my opinion of their writing, even though I may be marking some of it, than they are with peer reactions!

Of course, the structured nature of much T&L blogging detracts from the fluidity and freedom of the blogging process, but it will be interesting to see how many (if any!) students continue on to blog outside of the confines of the course in which many of them blogged for the first time! (These observations, I should add, are based entirely on my experience of tertiary level education and I'm not sure how true these observations hold for secondary and indeed primary school level blog use).

7:02 PM  

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