Uneven Progress-We Need to Catch Up

"Money is being spent. Smart classrooms are being built on both campuses and businesses. Collegiate faculty and corporate trainers are successfully integrating electronically delivered learning materials into literally thousands of courses focusing on traditional and non-traditional subjects . . .. [E]-learning is evolving in ways that few had predicted." (Zemsky & Massy, 2004, p. 60)

That's from the concluding section of Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy's recent report, Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to eLearning and Why. If this portion of their concluding remarks sounds less than enthusiastic, then you're getting their main point. The authors, as do I, believe that major positive accomplishments are yet to come in eLearning, but their report is a pragmatic look at what's really happened in the past ten years.

Zemsky and Massy had set up "weatherstations" on a number of campuses and in a number of corporations, where groups of faculty, staff, and students were to be committed to report on a variety of eLearning indices over time. The plan didn't succeed in the corporate world because the timing coincided with the economic recession and the training officers who were to be weatherstation operators "began to disappear-the victims of corporate reorganizations and downsizings." Participation by students also proved to be peripatetic and not useful, and the authors note that student opinion and experience remain variables relatively unmeasured and unaccounted for in anyone's analysis and research on eLearning.

The staff and faculty participation was excellent, however, and one of the remarkable sets of information that comes from this study over an 18-month period is how frequently individual perceptions of the success of eLearning implementation varied.

I want to address only one limited observation of the report, but I suggest you to read the entire document. The authors claim their findings invalidate some implicit assumptions of early eLearning optimism:

· "If we build it they will come-not so": The vast majority of students taking online courses were already taking traditional courses on their campuses. There really isn't a good market for eLearning products.
· "The kids will take to e-learning like ducks to water-not quite": Students are more concerned with the convenience of access to materials but not captivated by eLearning itself.
· "eLearning will force a change in the way we teach-not by a long shot": The tools actually in use, course management systems and PowerPoint, mostly, have just reinforced traditional teaching styles.
· eLearning will create international networks of scholars and learners-well, scholars, yes: Most eLearning still takes place strictly within national boundaries, despite a thriving international network of scholars and researchers.

In terms of the IT tools used in eLearning, the authors feel that mostly what has happened is the adoption of course management systems (which may even tend to reinforce traditional teaching styles rather than subvert or evolve them) and the very rapid adoption of PowerPoint slide shows as teaching tools. What is missing still, they say, is an easy way for educators to create and use learning objects, the lack of which is severely impeding the promise of improvements in teaching and learning styles.

Coincidentally, my Syllabus colleague, Howard Strauss, of Princeton University, recently captured this concern of Zemsky and Massy in a prescient way in his recent Syllabus article titled What's Next: Course Creation Systems. Zemsky and Massy put it as "there needs to emerge a dominant design, particularly for the learning objects that are eLearning's building blocks. It is not just a matter of making them easier to create-although that end is important-but also more interchangeable and more easily linked with one another. Howard calls this a Course Creation System (CCS), and it fills the bill.

Why did we ever think that faculty, except for a few bleeding-edge folk who contribute mightily to the MERLOT collection, would ever be able to find the time and get enough support to create libraries full of learning objects? It's much easier to learn the ins and outs of a CMS and how to produce a slide show. When you're young and a student, and if you have time on your hands, you might just spend the time to learn new things. And young people learn things more quickly. Zensky and Massy found that students' software purchases reflected items that do have somewhat steep learning curves-such as Adobe Photoshop, Acrobat, and various Macromedia products. Students are putting those things to use to express themselves, in some ways to create reports and papers that are more like learning objects than the slide shows their professors put on the class Web sites.

If you're a faculty person, the learning curve to get facile in those programs, not to mention even more sophisticated programs relating to three-dimensional stuff and video, is imposing. PowerPoint fills the bill without much of a learning curve. And course management software lets you think you're doing the latest thing-a subtle subversion of transformation.

What if the CCS made it as easy to create useful learning objects as to produce a slide show? Would we then see a transformation in teaching and elearning practice? As Howard puts it: "Learning management systems are now pretty good at managing courses. It's time we had software that [easily] creates something for them to manage." It can be done.

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