E-Learning Debate 2009

Today saw a tremendous gathering of the who’s who of UK learning technologies in the historic debating chamber of the Oxford Union. Many thanks must go to e-learning developers Epic for putting together this event and allowing their own industry to be placed under the microscope. The motion was as follows:

"This house believes that the e-learning of today is essential for the important skills of tomorrow."

Needless to say this wording is open to all sorts of interpretations. As a result, much of the debate was about what e-learning should be rather than whether it should be at all.

There were eight speakers, so excuse the fact that my notes are sketchy:

For: Prof. Diana  Laurillard

Hundreds of years back the argument was about p-learning – adding paper to the mix. If those of the oral tradition had had their way, the world would have been denied the explosion of knowledge that led to The Enlightenment.

User-generated content is the equivalent in importance to the invention of writing.

The internet is a wonderful testimony to society’s ability to share and build knowledge in cooperation.

Against: Dr Marc Rosenberg

What do we have to show for 30-40 years of CBT / e-learning, especially when compared to what has been achieved in just a few years with mobile technology and the internet? At best we’ve got a 20% penetration.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same poor result.

Today’s e-learning is marginally useful.

An LMS is just an e-learning vending machine.

E-learning is rocket science – rapid tools and processes serve to de-professionalise the field.

Blended learning is so often blended training. Courses cannot keep up with today’s knowledge.

Need to re-define e-learning, or the ‘e’ in e-learning will mean enough.

For: Maj Gen Tim Inshaw

E-learning is an expectation of Gen Y. It’s more effective and more efficient. But e-learning cannot provide the skills of tomorrow on its own.

Against: Claire Little, SHL Group

The e-learning of today is only really useful for black-and-white (unambiguous) topics, not for the more essential problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

Only a small proportion of the world’s population has internet access, particularly broadband. Mobile penetration is almost 100%, yet e-learning does not fully exploit this opportunity.

For: Andy McGovern, Reuters

Reuters adopt a broad definition for e-learning. The criticism of the narrow view of e-learning, (i.e. CBT-style, self-paced) has been largely overcome, with the increased use of synchronous online learning, online books, content generated by subject experts and so on.

In Reuters, they are getting 3000 e-learning course completions a month; have now reached 65m minutes online with Books 24×7 and a huge ROI. More than 10K employees are using an online language learning package.

Against: Wendy Cartwright, Olympic Development Authority

E-learning in its narrow sense is over-hyped. And not a high preference, according to the latest CIPD survey.

E-learning is providing only shallow learning of compliance topics – not the profound learning you get through interaction with other people. It is much better when combined with other approaches (again, as found in the CIPD survey).

The most needed skills of tomorrow will be interpersonal, and e-learning is not going to provide these.

For: Kirstie Donnelly, learndirect

‘E’ is not for end of, it is for evolution. D-learning (digital) provides a better description.

The courses of yesterday don’t work. We need to put the learner in control: on-demand, anytime, anywhere learning; learning without walls, breaking down the social and pedagogical constraints.

US studies show online learning beats the classroom on almost all counts.

Against: David Wilson, Elearnity

The debate is not about whether e-learning is useful or efficient, but whether the e-learning of today will meet the skills of tomorrow. Doing compliance training, product knowledge and induction programmes is not delivering these skills. The reality is that most organisations do not do much of Learning 2.0, serious gaming, etc. Essentially it’s basic knowledge acquisition.

We have to think about a bigger role for technology in learning. The next generation will not want simple click and learn courses.

Badly used, rapid e-learning could signal the development of more non-relevant courses more quickly.

Concluding remarks: Prof. Diana  Laurillard

The ‘opposition’ has focused on the worst possible manifestations of e-learning and ignored all the good work.

E-learning is not rocket science – it’s much harder than that! It’s about moving millions of minds. We’ve hardly started.

Concluding remarks: Dr Marc Rosenberg

To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘we are not here to bury e-learning but to save it.’

The usual rule in project management is you can have what you want fast, cheap or good, but you can only pick two of these. In e-learning we typically pick the wrong two.

The e-learning of tomorrow has to be good, not just fast or cheap. We have to acknowledge that the e-learning of today is not good enough.

The result: 90 voted for the motion and 144 against.

My view? Well I agreed with every speaker, which was quite possible given the different ways in which the motion could be interpreted. I changed my mind eight times but ended up voting for the motion.

The debate continues at www.elearningdebate.com.

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