What is e-learning? It’s a good time to keep asking.


Laptop connected to brain

In the run up to a session on e-learning that I participated in at the recent UnTech10 event, someone planning to attend the session asked about the state of “collaborative learning” in the world of e-learning. As this person put it, collaborative learning

…should be a particular strength of e-learning from the perspective of technological capabilities. Yet I feel we are still in the early stages of discovering how to move from “broadcasting” knowledge to collaborating in learning. Where are the collaborative learning successes in e-learning? What can we do to accelerate this shift?

I have tended to share the feeling that we are still in early stages in the association world, where I do most of my work. I am less tuned in to the worlds of corporate training and academic e-learning, but my general sense is that there is a good bit more hat than cattle in both of those arenas when it comes to discussions of collaborative learning or efforts to blend social media into traditional e-learning.

But then, before traveling too far down the road of feelings, I think it is important to step back and ask as pointedly as possible: What is e-learning?

The “e” part seems relatively easy. You can get cute with it if you want, but most fundamentally it is intended to denote any form of learning that is supported by electronic technologies. For most people, most of the time, that tends to mean the Internet and the Web, but it doesn’t have to. The important part of the “e” is that it provides for degrees of speed, scale, and access that simply were not possible before. From that standpoint, it might include conference calls, CDs, or a wide variety of other electronic media. Debate that if you want to, but it seems to me what really deserves our focus is the part after the hyphen: learning.

If we confine ourselves to traditional ideas of learning, then I think it is certainly true that we are in early stages of realizing the potential of collaborative learning. Traditional ideas of learning tend to lump learning and education together. It is something that happens in classrooms, whether “real” or virtual. It is something that is guided by the hand of an expert, whether that expert is present or not. It is something that involves credit and certifications and other forms of extrinsic validation.

From that perspective, these are early days indeed – aside from the use of discussion boards (with limited success in the majority of cases with which I am familiar), the successful examples of associations integrating collaborative approaches into this type of e-learning seem to be few and far between.

But with a slight shift of perspective, the picture changes dramatically.

As I have already suggested in an earlier post as well as in the most recent Association E-learning newsletter, the recent UnTech10 event was a shining example of this new perspective. So were the earlier Work Literacy and other Learning 2.0 efforts.

But even among more run-of-the-mill annual conference events there is rapidly growing use of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The ASAE & Center for Association Leadership LinkedIn group currently has more than 2500 members and the Professional Development Section nearly 500. Surely there is some learning going on in these places. Maybe it’s not as effective as it might be – yet – but we’ll keep getting better and better at it over time as we fully appreciate the potential.

How we view collaborative learning comes down to how we define learning – which, of course, impacts what we mean by e-learning.

I’m not arguing that the standard world of online courses and LMSes and Webinars is defunct – far from it – just that there there is great value in adopting a much broader perspective on e-learning. As I suggested in the recent update to Association E-learning: State of the Sector:

If we confine ourselves to traditional, course-driven conceptions of e-learning, we may eventually find that while we were focused on deploying learning management systems and creating products, the real learning was happening elsewhere.

How are you and your organization defining e-learning these days? What is e-learning? Please comment and share.

Jeff

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