E-learning – from alternative to norm
Alastair Creelman, Vice-President at EFQUEL sheds light on why e-learning is no longer an alternative form of education…
The concept of e-learning is in danger of soon becoming redundant. In today’s digital society, where the European Commission forecasts that 90% of all jobs by 2020 will demand digital literacy, any course that doesn’t involve the use of technology may been seen as irrelevant. It’s time to stop seeing e-learning as an alternative form of education and focus on developing new models and structures for education and learning that fully exploit the opportunities of today’s digital revolution.
E-learning, the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in education, arose as an alternative for students who were unable to participate in traditional classroom education. Typically such courses were largely based on guided self-study with a linear progression through modules consisting of recorded lectures, course literature, written assignments and multiple-choice self-tests. This model is still in use today, especially in many of the popular MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered by major universities. Technology has so far been used to simply reproduce traditional methods such as building closed virtual classrooms and offering recorded lectures rather than investigating what new pedagogies and paradigms digital technology can enable. E-learning has often been viewed as a compensatory phenomenon offering a “second best” solution for those not able to attend a regular course. There has also been a tendency in the e-learning community to focus on the technology, tools and devices rather than a discussion of how digital technology can enhance learning and how we can develop new pedagogies to fully exploit these opportunities. New technology does not lead to better learning; it’s what you do with that technology that can make a difference.
Today we have a wide range of free or easily affordable tools that enable us to do things previously unimaginable, both inside and outside the classroom: invite an expert guest to appear in class via Skype, publish class work and projects globally via blogs, wikis and e-books, create communities of interest on a national or international scale, write collaborative documents and projects, engage in dialogue with subject experts and students around the world. Teachers, librarians and educational technologists must work together to design stimulating collaborative learning environments for students and this involves questioning traditional practices and developing new skills. Teachers and students today have a wide range of tools and methods at their disposal, both traditional and digital, and we are only now beginning to see how these can be used pedagogically. The educational debate of recent years has often tended towards an unnecessary either/or polarisation (classroom/computer, physical/virtual, book/e-book) rather than an inclusive view where both traditional and digital tools and methods are all available and valid in the right setting. There are many arenas for learning available today, from the classroom to social media and virtual worlds, and the challenge for all in education is choosing the right arena for the right purpose.
Education is moving from the traditional information transfer model focused on content to the acquisition of skills such as teamwork, critical analysis and entrepreneurship that are increasingly demanded by employers. New forms of assessment and examination are needed to measure these new competences and new validation procedures are essential to ensure the international validity of new credentials. This demands new roles for both teachers and students and extensive support will be required to help them acquire the necessary digital skills. Educational institutions and authorities will need to thoroughly revise their quality assurance systems to accommodate these changes.
We are now moving from seeing e-learning as an alternative solution, with its own quality criteria, to full integration with mainstream education. The integration of technology into all forms of education is a reflection of the global digitalisation of society and it is essential that we have international cooperation around quality assurance, new forms of assessment, examination and credentials. EFQUEL has for almost 10 years been one of the leading European stakeholders working for innovative quality assurance and excellence models in e-learning and has, through various EU-supported projects, developed quality certifications for both institutions and programmes/courses. One particularly relevant initiative we are involved in at present is the SEQUENT project together with ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) and EADTU (European Association of Distance Teaching Universities) to map out paths for integrating existing e-learning quality certifications into mainstream university quality assurance. Through this and other initiatives we hope to contribute to the full integration of e-learning into European educational quality assurance.
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