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E-learning – the latest trends

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Towards world prevalence

When technological developments in education originated, there was some talk that they would replace more traditional teaching methods, particularly the lecture. But, even though the latter is pedagogically unfashionable in the Western world, face-to-face methods have still not been replaced by technology.

In fact, when it became clear that e-learning was not going to take over, or even be adopted as quickly as initially thought, a slight strain of pessimism could be detected.

Glen Hardaker, editor of the journal Campus-Wide Information Systems, maintained in a 2006 interview that the market was less buoyant, and quoted a speaker at a conference as saying "the party's over".

However, in 2010, the party appears in full swing. While growth hasn't been as rapid as initially predicted, the e-learning market has been expanding steadily, and forecasters predict that over the next four years, e-learning in K-12 education (i.e. primary and secondary) will advance at a compound annual growth rate of 17 per cent, and that in higher education will grow at 8 per cent (Converge Staff, 2010).

And in the latter, professors increasingly rely on digital content and social media to teach their students (Converge Staff, 2010).

The strength of e-learning can be seen not only in the West, but also in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries and Africa. In India, China and the Russia, the e-learning market is growing rapidly, and one survey claims that Russia's growth is twice that of the rest of the world (PR Inside, 2010). For developing economies, information and communication technologies (ICT) have become a key means of scaling up their tertiary education.

Main trends – overview

The 2007 Horizon Report on e-learning trends listed user-generated content, social networking, mobile phones and technologies, and virtual worlds as technologies to watch (Brahm, 2007). In broad terms, this prediction is accurate, as all these technologies now play an important role.

At the Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) conference – "ALT-C 2010: 'Into something rich and strange' – making sense of the sea change" – the following themes emerged as key:

  • Use of social media for collaborative learning and teamworking.
  • Mobile devices, not only phones, but also (for example) tablet PCs.
  • The contribution of ICT towards efficiencies of scale in an age of mass higher education.
  • The use of ICT to help overcome disparities of income, and help overcome the digital divide.
  • Virtual reality.

The ALT describes itself as "a professional and scholarly association which seeks to bring together all those with an interest in the use of learning technology" (ALT, 2010). It is British-based, but its influence extends far wider: delegates to its conference come from all over the world. It is therefore reasonable to assume that trends emerging at that conference reflect concerns internationally, and not just in the UK.

By and large, the same themes emerge in the world outside ALT, with the possible addition of the growth in digitization of material previously only available in print – e-books and digital textbooks for example.

However, one report, from a symposium on quality in e-learning, organized by Athabasca University and the International Council for Distance Education, suggests that key objectives remain the same in 2010 as they did in 2000 – institutional support, course development, teaching/learning, course structure, student support, faculty support, and evaluation and assessment (Empower, 2010).

This is a salutary reminder that the context of e-learning is always the pedagogical objectives – learning first and technology second.