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E-learning – the latest trends

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ICT for efficiency, sustainability and digital inclusion

Many look to ICT for efficiency savings, to provide an easier way of reaching the large numbers of students currently enrolling in higher education (in the West) or that need to be enrolled for a sustainable economy (in emerging markets such as India and China).

For example, India sees ICT as a vital tool in the push to increase enrolment to higher education from 10 to 15 per cent by 2015.

In the UK, the year 2010 sees declining budgets, while many universities are having to contend with massification, widening participation, increasing diversity and large classes.


Marking, assessment and providing feedback create a considerable load for the teacher, but are a vital part of learning. Faced with ever increasing numbers, teachers all over the world have been looking at ways of using technology to make marking easier.

One solution is to provide multiple choice questions; however, there is also a need to provide essay-writing tasks as a way of developing critical reasoning and writing skills. What technology can do is to automate some of the routine tasks and therefore reduce the administrative burden.

South Africa epitomizes the problems of massification as it tries to redress the inequities of apartheid, and Rhodes University has found that some of its classes have doubled in size. Furthermore, for many students English is not their first language, so they may lack academic writing skills.

One department sought to address these problems by using Moodle's workshop module as a vehicle for peer assessment in a first-year class on macroeconomics. Students found that assessing and being assessed improved their confidence in their work, while Moodle helped overcome the logistical difficulties of paper-based peer assessment (Mostert and Snowball, 2010).

The School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh automated the feedback process so that teachers did not have to keep manual records, could view work on tablet PCs, and use digital pens, macros and audio comments for marking. All this made marking a lot easier, while students also benefited (Hu and McLaughlin, 2010).

E-learning to build a more inclusive society

E-learning for digital inclusion, both in the UK and overseas, proved a key theme at both ALT-C 2010 and eLearning Africa 2010.

ALT-C 2010 featured a number of case studies including one from South Africa (quoted above, Mostert and Snowball, 2010), as well as one on the difficulties faced by Zimbabwe's e-learning as that country is 132/134 in the World Economic Forum global ICT "networked readiness index" with only 13 per cent of its population online (Jameson, 2010).

At eLearning Africa 2010, keynote speakers emphasized the importance of ICT to Africa's social and economic development (eLearning Africa 2010, 2010: p. 2).

One of the problems many countries face in the application of e-learning is the lack of necessary infrastructure. In Africa, electricity shortages and problems of Internet connectivity have led to a search for alternative sources of energy, such as solar energy, biofuels, and biogas, and success in this respect is a prerequisite for the sustainability of e-learning (eLearning Africa 2010, 2010: p. 5).

Shortages of teachers, or their poor geographical distribution, remains a persistent problem in some countries in Africa and Asia. India, for example, has a thriving software industry in which e-learning holds an important place, but students may face difficulties in gaining access to the best professors and teachers.

In an effort to redress this problem, the e-learning company, iProf Learning Solutions India, has developed iProf. Described as an "education tablet", with a touch screen similar to the iPad and android technology, it comes with content from premier educational institutions, including subject-specific video lectures with self-assessment tests (Indian Tech News, 2010).

Thus learners living in isolated areas can gain access to expertise delivered wirelessly – another example of wireless technology being used to help overcome poor infrastructure.

China, like India, suffers from poor distribution of expert teachers. It has a relatively high Internet connectivity, but needs to increase its educational infrastructure by supplying middle schools with computer classrooms and rural elementary schools with DVD players and facilities for receiving satellites (Wang et al., 2009).

Belief in the importance of the lecture, as opposed to more social constructivist approaches to learning, dominates China's approach to education and hence e-learning is seen as delivering packaged learning materials to the student. There is thus a considerable difference between China and the West in their understanding of e-learning. Zhao et al. (2009) describe this difference as follows:

"In China, network learning refers to a largely resource-based form of online learning and the learning material is 'broadcast' to the masses with little student-to-student communication, and even less student-to-teacher communication. It is just a delivery system through which the individual student can receive the course material, which they are then expected to learn on their own. In the Western context, network learning practice involves 'learning in which information and communications technology is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources' (Goodyear et al., 2004). There is little if any sense of 'community' in the Chinese context of network learning", Zhao et al. (2009: p. 94-95).