Wednesday, September 26, 2007

eLearning Lets it All Hang Out

I just read a report that came out in June titled Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education. Published by the Education Sector, an independent education think tank in Washington, the paper provides an overview of online education at the high school level across the United States. Not surprisingly, the results are mixed; some jurisdictions are doing a fine job of providing alternative access to secondary education, and in others the quality is just not up to snuff. However, what I found more interesting in the report was that eLearning efforts often precipitate important re-examinations of teaching and learning practices (eg. increasing student participation, fostering self-reflection and independent learning, etc.), and that experiencing online teaching often motivates teachers to improve the ways they teach in the classroom. The report also highlights how administrators and parents are appreciative of the transparency of actually seeing what happens in online classes and can more easily monitor quality. It is in these ways that virtual classes act as "laboratories of reform."

This has long been a bug bear of mine: that it is widely assumed that what happens in the in-person classroom is sacrosanct, yet distance education and eLearning efforts have to consistently prove that they are as good as the classroom experience. Not withstanding the "no significant difference" studies between various forms of education, non traditional approaches have always assumed a greater burden of proof. Having been in the distance ed and online fields for a dozen years, I can attest to the fact that the work I have been involved with faces far more scrutiny and is held to higher standards than what happens in the classroom.

The irony of all this is that there is no hiding in any case with respect to eLearning. Everything is available for as detailed examination as one wishes to undertake. One can very easily assess the quality of:
  • learning content and activities
  • learning objectives
  • learner direction and supports
  • structure and sequencing
  • interaction
  • teaching presence
  • feedback to learners
  • learner assessments
Because it is "all out there" in eLearning and a permanent record is created, it makes it far easier for stakeholders to know exactly what is transpiring in the virtual learning environment. It is therefore much easier to assess quality against expected standards, to hold course designers and facilitators accountable for their work, and to initiate continuous improvement programs. Whether in secondary education, post-secondary education, adult continuing professional development, or corporate training, there is too much that happens in physical classrooms that occurs in an unexamined vacuum.


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