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ISC 19. Influences in E-Learning: Forces for Change or Confusion?

Paul Catherall

Overview

Recent years have seen a new impetus amongst academic institutions to embrace VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) within existing academic structures and modes of course delivery. The JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) and other leading regulatory bodies in Further and Higher Education are encouraging the development of e-learning as an adjunct to conventional teaching.  

E-learning systems do indeed represent a sophisticated technology for education, characterised by an integrated, web-based communications interface allowing for document publishing, file sharing, email and shared calendaring.

The use of Web-based e-learning allows educational tutors or workplace trainers to interact with students in an ubiquitous context, either at the place of study, from the home or other remote location; additionally, e-learning does not simply allow for advanced email and file-transmission, but also provides synchronous tools such as real-time chat for 'Web conferencing'.

The pedagogical advantages of e-learning, from a practical perspective may seem obvious and appealing; however, it should be noted that e-learning is also characterised by a number of wider environmental influences.

Market Forces

The e-learning market is currently led (or dominated, depending on your perspective) by the Blackboard corporation, based in the USA and currently holding around 40% of the e-learning market in the UK.   

Perhaps it is inevitable that the development of e-learning has emerged from a US corporation, possessing the required financial backing for research and development.  

The Blackboard e-learning system is at first glance the archetypal VLE, incorporating all of the aforementioned e-learning features, its success is due to the simplicity of the Blackboard interface and content structure (not resembling, but imitating Windows file manager), thus accommodating many teaching styles.

However, one could argue that like Microsoft, the Blackboard product has dominated the e-learning market in a snow-ball like effect, leading to widespread dependence amongst FE and HE providers on a commercial system based around an annual license fee with additional costs for consultancy and support.  

The Blackboard system is certainly excellent in terms of usability, however with mass uptake of course programmes and subsequent dependence on e-learning amongst academic departments, many organisations are finding they have become increasingly locked into this and similar commercial e-learning systems.  

There are alternative e-learning platforms to the commercial market leaders, the not-for-profit COSE and Moodle systems are both popular systems, with rising levels of user support to match the larger companies; however, the advantages of an off-the-shelf system with a formal support provider are obviously more appealing to smaller organisations without programming expertise for maintaining systems internally.

Political Influences

Political influences on e-learning are certainly less direct, but equally present; the UK government has invested considerable money in developing e-learning across a range of institutions, most notably the UK E-University (UKEU), intended to offer e-learning based courses for UK and overseas students from UK universities, but dismantled in June this year due to poor uptake and software problems.

There has also been a significant impetus from central government to encourage the use of e-learning to develop its lifelong learning agenda, most recently, the white paper The Future of Higher Education (famously proposing a £3000 'contribution' or top-up-fee.)   The vision, seen consistently across government policies, suggests the use of learning technology to support innovative models of learning and teaching for non-traditional students, across FE, HE and workplace training.

These proposals have filtered down to professional bodies and other sources of advocacy, most notably in the JISC vision for electronic libraries, encouraging the development of MLEs (Managed Learning Environments).

Whilst the advantages of e-learning are being realised for supporting part-time, low contact and other non-traditional forms of teaching, some educationalists have begun to question the blanket solution or application of e-learning across academic institutions and the pedagogic viability of e-learning following the collapse of UKEU.

Pedagogy

Perhaps the most interesting and least mentioned influence is pedagogical development, i.e. the way in which e-learning systems are informed by educational theory and research.

The current model for e-learning system development has largely been characterised by E-learning companies reacting to suggestions from the educational community, with system features conceived by developers, rather than educationalists. For me, this indicates an obvious gap between pedagogical research and the finished e-learning product.           

Whilst some academics have urged colleagues to embrace e-learning, adopting an innovate and tutor-led approach, there must be some uncertainty on the appropriateness or application of proprietary systems as a supplement or even replacement for conventional teaching. One of the most heated debates currently concerns the use of 'learning objects', reusable 'packages' which could resemble a PowerPoint presentation, but which allow greater interaction and could be downloaded and imported into a compatible e-learning system. Consider this comment from a recent article by Norm Frieson (2003):

To the knowledge of this author... there have been no in-depth studies of the pedagogical consequences of these systems and ways of thinking, and no examinations of their epistemological and ideological implications. On a more practical level, others have noted a general lack of adoption of these techniques by both practitioners and vendors...

Web Standards

Another aspect of e-learning, which perhaps should have been listed earlier as an influence, but which sadly does not feature prominently enough in this field is the issue of Web standards, i.e. standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C (the official standards making body for the World Wide Web.)

Web standards include the mark-up script used to display the Web page or front-end of the e-learning system.   Currently, the latest mark-up standard is XHTML 1.1., although the more familiar HTML 4.01 is still valid.

It is important for software developers to adhere to mark-up standards to allow Web browsers, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator to display Web resources correctly; these standards are also important for users with disabilities or access problems, where incorrect mark-up may impair the browsing experience of the user (e.g. using a Braille Web display.)

Another important Web standard is the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), a W3C standard to ensure users with access problems are able to interact with Web resources; there are three ratings for WCAG compliance, A, AA, and AAA (the highest level of compliance). Practical examples of these standards include alternative text for images (to describe the image) and similar text to describe the purpose of tables.

Unfortunately, many e-learning systems depend on non-accessible features such as frames, javascript, image-based text and other features that could cause access problems.

The issue of accessibility and standards compliance is becoming more prolific amongst e-learning systems, with limited support for the WCAG in systems such as Blackboard, WebCT and other market leaders, although much research and development is still needed.

It should be noted that Web accessibility is not limited to physical, cognitive or other disabilities, but should be considered in terms of issues such as availability, ownership and the IT expertise of users   - consider this excerpt from my own recent publication:

48% of UK households have Internet access, with approximately 25% using fast broadband access and the remaining 75% using a slower modem connection...

Some Final Thoughts

We have considered how a range of influences have brought an impetus for the uptake of e-learning systems, and how the VLE model has become the dominant form of e-learning, however, it is clearly apparent that e-learning is driven less by pedagogical research and planning than by technological innovation and political impetus.

There is certainly a requirement for further research both on the impact of e-learning in class-based, low contact and other forms of teaching, and for research into the advantages and practical application of e-learning to inform future system development.

References

Friesen, N. (2004). Three Objections to Learning Objects. Available at: http://phenom.educ.ualberta.ca/~nfriesen

JISC - Web standards and guidance: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=pub_ag_web

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): http://www.w3c.org

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG):

http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/

Paul Catherall is the author of 'Delivering E-Learning for Information Services in Higher Education' (Chandos Publishing), 2004.

ISBN 1 84334 088 7 (pbk), 1 84334 095 X

http://elearning.draigweb.co.uk

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