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eLearning | Viewpoint

The Myth of eLearning: There Is No 'There' There

Information technology, ironically, instead of disenfranchising the current higher education enterprise, is making it more vital. After all, we find that there was and is no revolution, just a gradual shift in emphasis toward certain kinds of existing learning experiences. Also, unexpectedly, on-the-ground colleges and universities are, if anything, better positioned to maximize their in-situ advantage than ever before. Distance education is not, and never should be considered, a replacement of traditional on-the-ground learning.

The problem that higher education faced when computers and networks became ubiquitous on campuses was that we educators had set ourselves up for a fall:

· We claimed that the only important learning occurred in the classroom

· We said that we (educators) "delivered" education

· Such "delivery" was based merely on books and talking

We had, unwittingly, made it sound unrealistically simple. As a result, those entrepreneurial people who set up distance learning opportunities could use this simplistic description of learning and seem to set up legitimate competing offerings. If it's only about talking and reading, then why do we need a campus?

But, in reality, learning is not that simple; our rhetoric about teaching and learning had just made it seem so. Learning is not content, we now know, and learning is not delivery of content.

The glitter is off the for-profits, distance education is an oxymoron, and the real revolution (so to speak) is in discovering the learning opportunities on campuses as they exist. Voila! Campus designers now recognize that esthetics need to be wedded with the function of providing serendipitous learning spaces. Classroom design has leapt forward to accommodate multiple forms of interaction, and not just the lecture.

We had been hung on our own petard when we described education in one-dimensional and utilitarian terms (delivery of content). We made our educational enterprise sound autonomic. No wonder people talked about a revolution; but it was a revolution against the simplistic, autonomic language, not against the reality.

The reality always was that the classroom is only a part of the learning spectrum on a campus. Sports, dorm life, social life, internships, service learning, cultural opportunities, volunteer work, field work, study groups, writing labs, office hours, chance meetings on campus, the general quality of conversation, life-long friendships, participation in a learned community, models of research, the campus newspaper, counseling, and on and on--all the ways that the full human develops on a campus, none of which is "delivered" but all of which is experienced, is the true nature of higher education in the U.S. (less so at commuter schools perhaps, but still with many of the same advantages).

When I was actively attending faculty meetings at any of the 8 universities where I worked, I repeatedly heard my colleagues argue to cut funding for athletics, as if that had no value for students, no real value, or to shut down ROTC out of some vague negative belief (I myself learned about teaching and learning theory when I taught in the Instructional Methods Division of the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and my college teaching was better because of that experience). There was, and probably still is, a bias toward mental and abstract learning rather than experiential learning.

Attempting to use computers to replace what humans do--think, understand language, make decisions, or tutor--has been humiliatingly difficult over the past half-century. Each time computer scientists have claimed programming could equal human performance, they have only discovered that they had no understanding of the complexity of their claims. Natural language processing took 50 years longer than first imagined, for example. The notion of "eLearning," as if the "e" could teach, or as if there is a new kind of learning because of computers, is a chimera.

The campus is full of exciting learning opportunities that can be coordinated in the classroom. Electronic portfolios allow students to collect evidence of learning outside the classroom so they don't need to be tied to the classroom to learn. The portfolio, then, is the new book: the central technology around which to design learning. Portfolios are accessible from anywhere, including (increasingly) from mobile technology. This means that the whole campus and the nearby community is a connected classroom.

Why not, for example, have students reflect on what they learn participating in sports and validate those reflections as equally important to what they learn studying World War I?

Students create a portfolio of all the learning they experience on campus and are then assessed and evaluated on the evidence they present of their learning.

Testing, as another form of evaluation, only shows how good students are at taking tests; where in real life is that skill important? The skills employers ask for are the ability to write (ouch), to collaborate, to work on unstructured problems, and to innovate. They don't ask for graduates who are good at playing the classroom game.

Many institutions are already moving toward more authentic learning and assessment; many faculty members are adopting problem-based learning and more experiential learning. More major programs in the disciplines are demanding internships. The move is already underway toward using campus resources more fully, making students' learning experiences more holistic and pertinent to the needs of today's employment patterns.

What, in the end, is the change? The gradual shift is toward using the full resources of the campus and away from classroom-centric thinking. The shift is away from learning autonomously to learning collaboratively. The shift is toward all courses requiring more writing. And the shift is toward students addressing problems or cases or field studies or experiments that are not scaffolded by their teachers.

Now that we have left behind the simplistic one-dimensional, and kind of depressing, specter of "delivering content" as our idea of learning, and now that we have the management tools to release learning from classroom-centricity, higher education will continue to thrive. The American higher education enterprise is unequalled in the world by any measure and, wow, it is getting even better.

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