The limits of e-learning

stollen (2)wWith the glut of information offered on the Internet, including  MOOCs (massive online open courses) offered free from prestigious universities like Harvard and MIT, many educators are beginning to fear for their lively hood. There are reasons that human educators will not disappear with onslaught of e-learning.

I sometimes hear instructors say that on-line courses are fine for basic learning but the personal interaction with seasoned professional is necessary for the complexities of advanced work. However, the majority of the “students” that earn a certificate from a massive open on-line course already have Bachelor’s degrees, and a significant chunk hold  Master’s degrees. Most of the courses are highly technical. Evidently it is the person who has spent more than their share of time listening to instructors that is willing to deal with the independent effort required to complete an on-line course on Artificial Intelligence.

As I watch participants slogging through a basic  on-line course on occupational safety, I hear their constantly shuffling feet and begrudging sighs. They would rather be learning anywhere else than plopped in front of a computer. They want to be moving around, making things happen, working with their hands and interacting with others. On the other hand, students that line up outside the computer lab an hour before it opens are actually used to producing their work (games, graphics, apps etc.) on the computer. It is a tool to use and not just a conduit for the somniferous “interactive” lectures. They are able to sit concentrating through boring files in order to start an adventure in new software.

What are the limits to e-learning?

1) Not all that needs to be learned can be learned on a computer. Anything that requires specific manipulation – from repairing a crumpled fender to playing a soul stirring Beethoven concerto – requires that people practice on the tools they will be using. Viewing a master performing his trade on a video followed by a”low level” simulation practice (screen touches or key presses substituted for the actual actions) is not sufficient. Watching a moderately proficient person perform in the flesh, and then attempting to repeat the actions while receiving feedback provides essential dimensions that can be lost in e-learning.

2) Not all learning is technical in nature. Dealing with humans requires experience dealing with living, breathing, unpredictable humans, not an avatar safely captured in an LCD monitor. Despite advances in Artificial Intelligence we cannot create reliable models for human thought processes because humans are a quirky mix of rational and irrational.

3) Not all learning can be measured electronically. We have long been aware that a bubbled-in Scantron is not necessarily a good reflection of students’ ability to perform authentic tasks in a particular content area. The same is true of assessment techniques used by e-learning, which typically reduce information to a level of memorization or simple analysis. Complex multi-step procedures requiring judgment are sometimes impossible to duplicate.

4) Finally, not everyone wants to spend their life working face to face with a computer. We often forget that the initial purpose of technological advances are to improve the lives of people by making them more efficient. However we need to be aware; advances in factory production during the industrial age lowered the cost of products and increased the work week. As the gathering information becomes a priority, more people spend their days  behind the screens. The coal mining that fed the furnaces of the industrial revolution is being replaced by the data mining that feeds the statistic hunger of industries in the information age.

The good news – instructors need not fear being replaced by computers. However, e-learning is still very useful to supplement face to face instruction. The bad news – the more time students spend learning on-line the more time instructors spend, reading posts, tracking data and trying to determine what students are actually learning.

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