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E-learning – the latest trends

By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction

E-learning has developed with the Internet, taking the affordances of technologies and marrying them with appropriate methods and practices of teaching. This article looks at the main trends dominant in e-learning towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with a particular focus on higher education.

For a discussion of how the pedagogies of constructivism, constructionism, and collectivism are applied to user-generated content and social media see the article on E-learning 2.0.

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 But, even though the latter is pedagogically unfashionable in the Western world, face-to-face methods have still not been replaced by technology.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.

Collaborative learning, teamworking and social media

Technology helping to scaffold and support teamworking, and create a sense of community, emerged as a key theme at ALT-C 2010. At the eLearning Africa 2010 conference a few months earlier, the first speaker was the Rt Rev Dr S. Tilewa Johnson, Anglican Bishop of Gambia, known as the Twittering Bishop.

Johnson delivered a rousing address on the online social education of young people, encouraging his audience to explore how digital technologies could help them stay in touch with African tradition and understand the changing needs of African youth (eLearning Africa, 2010).

eLearning Learning is a site which collects articles and blog posts about e-learning: in August 2010, by far the most popular themes (approx. 80 per cent) were around social media and social learning. And the E-learning News blog (2010) listed social learning/informal learning (i.e. groups of individuals using new tools to collaborate and co-create content and generally work and learn together) as one of the key trends of 2009.

The key point emerging from recent research and case studies on the topic is that there is no one way of getting people to communicate or collaborate effectively. For each, the technological infrastructure needs to be thought through to match the needs of the community. This is the mantra of e-learning, that it is student-centred, enabling the individual or group to learn in a way that suits him/her or them.

Perhaps the best example of this lies in research done on a group outside higher education: a Dutch study of the information needs of knowledge workers (Bitter-Rijpkema and Verjans, 2010). Whereas the academic information needs of students can be structured with the confines of a virtual learning environment (with links to a library), those of knowledge workers are complex, fast moving and located not only in recognized sources of expertise such as databases, but also in people's heads.

There is therefore no one off-the-peg solution that meets all their requirements, they:

"need some of the safety, access control and predictable structure of an MLE [managed learning environment] with the personalisation, openness and flexibility offered by PLEs [personal learning environments]" (Bitter-Rijpkema and Verjans, 2010: p. 172).

Nor need the proposed solution be a complex one. Neumann et al. (2010) describe a project to use Google Docs as a collaborative tool. Google Docs is both freely available and easy to use, and thus neither incurs institutional cost nor offers barriers to use.

Blogging

Blogging is a technology whose time has definitely come as far as e-learning, and indeed the whole academic community, is concerned.

In fact, learning to blog effectively is seen as an important skill for those seeking to enter the research community of practice. A study carried out at the Open University of the blogging habits of a group of postgraduate researchers over a four-year period (Ferguson et al., 2010), observed how the blogging changed from the first year of research to the completion of the doctorate and early-career researcher jobs.

The researchers moved from using blogs as a tool for reflection and collaboration, to a more atomized approach where ideas related to their research were hidden in dark or password-protected blogs (to prevent other researchers getting there first), while general discussion with the scholarly community was moved to more collaborative tools.

Blogging epitomizes the social nature of learning and knowledge, with bloggers and their respondents co-creating meaning. It is an excellent tool for academic dialogue – as Wheeler (2010) points out, it is much easier to express a contrary opinion to a blog than it is to an academic journal article.

The way in which the group studied by the OU used a combination of blogging and other media – Twitter for conferences, humour and references, communication tools such as Cloudworks, Google Docs and Google Wave for more serious research – illustrates a key new skill researchers must acquire: digital literacy.

They must be willing to learn about new tools such as Cloudworks (a type of collaborative blog, with members developing web pages or "clouds" for particular ideas or issues for discussion), and how best to exploit them.

Mobile devices

Mobile devices are enjoying an increasingly important role in education. The new Horizon Report for 2010 (Johnson et al., 2010) reported that mobile computing was one of six technologies to watch, while E-learning News (2010) predicted that the infiltration of personal devices into the classroom would be a key trend in educational technology in 2010.

Mobile phones – including those owned by students – are becoming increasingly sophisticated, enabling the user not only to call and text, but also to browse the Internet, take photos, record audio, write a message on Facebook, etc.

This sophistication means that they can be used for more complex learning, particularly that which involves Internet access and user-generated content. That students do use their phones for learning (for example, using the Internet to find information) is confirmed by a longitudinal study at one of London's largest universities, London Metropolitan (Bradley and Holley, 2010).

Web 2.0 and mobile devices

But perhaps the most powerful development in mobile learning (m-learning) is the possibility of combining it with Web 2.0 learning, because mobile devices can now be used for social networking and user generated content. This means that m-learning can be underpinned by the pedagogy of social constructivism.

Cochrane and Bateman (2010) offer a powerful case history of a degree course where mobile Web 2.0 was integrated into all three years of the course, offering a progression from a teacher-directed pedagogy to student-generated content around projects (heutagogy).

In the first year, students were given considerable guidance on how to use the devices appropriately, but even then they were expected to use them in a fairly advanced way, i.e. for reflective blogging.

Claiming that mobile Web 2.0 can be used to facilitate "collaborative, authentic learning within authentic contexts" as well as metacognition and reflection, Cochrane and Bateman (2010: p. 12) provide the following table showing the affordances of smartphones mapped to social constructivist activities:

Cochrane and Bateman (2010: p. 12) provide the following table showing the affordances of smartphones mapped to social constructivist activities

Table I. The affordances of smartphones mapped to social constructivist activities (Cochrane and Bateman, 2010: p. 12)

Mobile devices are of course not confined to smartphones. One report on educational technology trends (Converge Staff, 2010) claimed that tablet computers are becoming more popular in post-secondary education. Two New Zealand academics, Daphne Robson and Dave Kennedy, reviewed their use in a maths class and come up with some useful tips on teaching with tablet PCs (Robson and Kennedy, 2010: p. 27). Their overall conclusion is that the use of tablets increased student motivation.

Mobile technology has proved effective not only for its affordances, but also because the mobile network can be cheaper and more reliable than that for broadband. This is why mobile phone usage is revolutionizing some parts of the world, for example Africa, as it compensates for poor broadband connectivity and electricity shortages.

Mobile learning was (along with open source and teacher education) the most popular topic at eLearning Africa 2010, where a variety of initiatives were described, including the m4Lit project in South Africa, which helps to encourage literacy among school children and young adults (eLearning Africa, 2010).

Virtual reality

Many academics are using the affordances of enhanced computer capacity and technology rich environments of virtual worlds (VWs) to engage with their students. "Changing virtuality" was a theme at ALT-C 2010, with papers exploring the use of VWs, for example to provide something that was missing in "real life".

Rudman et al. (2010) describe the use of the 3D multi-user virtual environment of Second Life (SL) to create a virtual genetics laboratory, to supplement the limitations of practical laboratory classes.

Other uses of virtual reality (VR) include synchronous and asynchronous lecturing, and group work, as discussed by Barker (2010).

Barker describes research on the use of VR with final year undergraduate computer science students, and makes the following observations:

  • Graphics are presently limited, and it is difficult to perform actions such as picking up objects.
  • Lecturing (the object of providing lectures simultaneously in SL and in reality was to give students the opportunity to view them either way, or to view a recording if they were unable to attend the event) creates problems for control, both of the real-time and the virtual lecture.
  • The anonymity of SL can be a drawback as it causes confusion when interacting with others if the learner has a different identity in SL.
  • Feedback and interaction is slow – students can feel inhibited asking questions in SL lectures, and the text chat facility is slow.
  • Group working is seen as the major benefit; students engage in much the same way as in the real world.
  • Tasks need to be realistic, with important lessons carried over to the real world.
  • While SL still requires considerable technical effort and personal support, it is unlikely to appeal to many as a teaching tool.
  • Accessibility remains a problem.

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.

Assessment

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).

Digital resources

Three main trends can be observed in relation to digital resources:

  1. the growth in the sharing of educational resources,
  2. the growth of e-books, and
  3. the continuing concern on the part of librarians that their resource discovery mechanisms are not being used.

1. Open educational resources

Open educational resources (OERs) are teaching resources which can be re-used and adapted to local situations. They are part of a general movement towards open source software, with the difference that OERs also involve the sharing of content.

They are also another example of the trend towards sustainability in e-learning: if content can be adapted or reused, efficiency savings are created.

OERs are important internationally. They were a major theme at both the ALT-C conference and eLearning Africa 2010. One project described by the former was the JISC/HEA BERLiN project at the University of Nottingham (Stapleton and Beggan, 2010). This saw significant collaboration with OER Africa, with the latter providing advice on sustainability, while African educators were able to borrow resources from UK higher education institutions.

2. E-books

The growth of e-books was predicted as one of the key trends in educational technology (Converge Staff, 2010). One piece of research reported that students valued the portability and flexibility of e-books, but preferred the print version for in-depth study (Nie et al., 2010).

Lack of a common XML format for e-books has inhibited their development, and will need to be agreed (Reynolds, 2010). Digitization offers opportunity to treat content in a different way, and it's also predicted that there will be a move towards disaggregation, into small "learning pieces".

In a year that saw the release of the iPad, it was also predicted that tablet PCs will become the main device for interacting with learning content (Reynolds, 2010). The iProf (see part 6) is one such example.

3. Resource discovery

Librarians have for some time voiced their concerns about the way students prefer Google to their own discovery mechanisms. One study from Middlesex University (Stelmaszewska et al., 2010) claimed students find many university and college systems too complex, time-consuming and cumbersome for their research. Such problems create barriers to access and distract students from critically analysing and evaluating resources, as they resort to approaches with which they are familiar. The report argued the need for better training, support and improved access to resources.

Summary

Both mobile learning and learning involving social media are definitely here to stay. In fact, 2009 saw their marriage, which created ever more powerful possibilities for learning.

To continue the anthropomorphic metaphor, 2010 has also seen a birth: the iPad. The iPad was predicted to be a disruptive and transforming technology, yet no one could be quite sure in what way. It does seem, however, that small devices which are still large enough for users to be able to properly view and interact with content are proving highly useful learning tools.

As parts of the world face up to increasing numbers of students in higher education, people look to e-learning for efficiency savings. E-learning is expensive, so it must have its own efficiency savings and be sustainable.

E-learning will also be used to compensate for deficiencies – lack of electricity or broadband access (necessitating a move to mobile networks), and lack of good teachers or professors.

The trends in e-learning tend on the one hand to be the same the world over, but on the other, e-learning means different things in different cultures.

It seems, then, that e-learning will continue to have an important place in higher education pedagogy, working alongside more traditional methods and adapting itself to local needs.

Further resources

The Association of Learning Technologists has provided a series of "What research has to say for practice" guides, covering some of the topics discussed in this article. These are available at http://wiki.alt.ac.uk/index.php/What_research_has_to_say_for_practice.

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