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"In times of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." - Eric Hoffer

What is e-learning?
E-learning has been described by Cisco Systems as "the overarching umbrella that encompasses education, information, communication, training, knowledge management, and performance management. It is the web-enabled system that makes information and knowledge accessible to those who need it, when they need it - anytime, anywhere.”

However, a simple way to think about e-learning is:"E-learning is to ICT, as writing is to pens". An agenda about ICT puts the emphasis on the technology, whereas e-learning puts the emphasis on how we learn with the technology.

As such, e-learning is not just about the work of schools. It is a recognition that everyone in a changing society needs access to continuous forms of learning - that fit into their busy lives. E-learning works differently to formal schooling. E-learning redesigns learning around the needs of the learner. It provides content matched to what the learner needs to learn at that point in time, in a style that matches the way that the learner prefers to learn, in a quantity matched to the time the learner has available, at a time when it is convenient for the learner, at a place where the learner happens to be.
This is very much the way that learning would be designed if it were a true consumer product rather than a product of a historical approach to organising schooling.

The scope of e-learning can be explored through this mind map:

      Clich to download mind map
      Source: Lorraine Dawes, Redbridge LEA 

Current thinking acknowledges that the teacher plays a key role in the learning process, but that this dependence on the teacher naturally falls away with the age of the learner. Effective learning models will acknowledge this and explicitly encourage learners to become independent by teaching the skills of learning as well as subject content. John Abbott in 'The Unfinished Revolution' refers to this as 'intellectual weaning' where 'the more skills the learner acquires, the more the learner is responsible for using those skills."

The term 'blended learning' has been used to describe a mix of inputs to match the different capacities and learn and different preferred learning styles. This acknowledges the concern that a purely 'virtual' learning experience is only likely to be effective for the most highly motivated and self-sufficient of learners.

This mix of inputs could include a number of the following:

an interactive online course that presents tasks according to progress made
continuous online assessment with remedial feedback
comprehensive self-learning, printed course materials
a classroom mentor who is expert in understanding how pupils best learn
a visiting expert teacher shared with many institutions
regular video-conference-based lessons with the expert teacher
the use of email for personal feedback
access to peer group online discussion fora
a programme to teach learning skills and self-responsibility for learning

Such approaches to learning are already developing in the delivery of minority post-16 courses and some of these elements are also to be found in vocational areas like the Cisco Networking Academy Programme, where a practical dimension is also included.

However, this is still very much a delivery-model of learning with formal learning goals as the end product. John Abbott makes a case that learning should be more like an apprenticeship, with frequent opportunities to apply that learning in real contexts. Hence best e-learning practice will include opportunities for pupils to use their newly-acquired digital literacy skills for multimedia authoring, digital video production, web publishing, and that whole creative dimension to using ICT that has so far remained under-exploited in schools.

Professor Stephen Heppell, Director of Ultralab, describes 'e-learning' as follows:

"It isn't delivering knowledge, it isn't building 'teaching machines', it isn't edutainment, it isn't doing what we did before but cheaper.
But it is the opportunity for children to explore new expertises, take new risks, develop new collaborations, gain new understandings…
It is about creativity not productivity.... It is also about multiple media and multiple learning styles, together with the opportunity to change the mix to suit the context, the learners, their predispositions and their entitlements.
Comfortingly it is also about allowing teachers to do what they entered the profession to do: inspire, lead and delight children whilst rejoicing in their rapid progression."
source: NGfL Scotland

How will e-learning affect teaching?
The scope for teaching through e-learning can be explored through this mind map:
    Click to download mind map  -Source: Lorraine Dawes, Redbridge LEA 

E-learning offers scope to organise teaching differently. An intelligent e-learning organisation will plan its e-learning strategy so that the expertise which teachers have - the most important component in the learning equation - is used to its best purpose. Removing tasks which dilute the energies of teaching staff in administration will be a key task, and one for which ICT offers solutions. Maximising the range, style and depth of learning opportunities of pupils will be the main objective of an e-learning strategy.

E-learning may also offer a partial solution to a difficulty now facing schools - the need for more teachers, at a time when lifelong learning is expanding the need for teachers.
Ralph Tabberer of the TTA, referring to this problem, has said:

"If we cannot fuel all the expansion in schools with teachers alone, then we have to look elsewhere. There are two main places to go: to other adults, and to ICT."

    -Naace Conference 2002 - Will ICT Deliver?

'Learning in the 21st Century - the vision and practice in local authorities', a joint publication by Naace, Becta, Socitm and Idea, makes a case that "E-learning may be the only way to provide training and support to communities and large workforces facing periods of major change" and that "e-learning demands a joined-up approach".

Reaping the considerable potential benefits of e-learning will require a commitment to developing e-learning practice from all stakeholders in the UK education system.

In the brave new world of e-learning, institutions might aim to share their specialist subject teachers with partner institutions by making them available online, whilst acknowledging that the primary specialism for adults working directly with e-learners will be their knowledge of how pupils best learn.

How will e-learning transform the way we learn?
Highly effective, self-sufficient e-learners will need to know much more than how to work a computer. The package of learning skills they will need will include enquiry skills and thinking skills, to support both the process aspects of learning and the intellectual development that accompanies it.

If we are to develop a transformational model for e-learning, i.e. where pupils make significant added-value gains when using the medium of e-learning
, then a language to describe learning gains when using ICT will need to be more commonly shared, so that teachers can recognise and promote these gains. The teaching of thinking skills as part of an e-learning programme is clearly likely to promote the progress made by e-learners. The emphasis placed on the skills of enquiry in particular will underpin much of the higher level work undertaken when pupils make use of e-content for assignments that have the characteristics of research.

How will we recognise the e-learning transformation?
Progression in e-learning will generally be reflected in a growth in the ability of pupils to apply ICT within practical contexts. Progress in e-learning might be identified by:

 An increase in pupil independence
 Improvement in the quality of presentation and content of pupils' ICT work
 A growth in the level of thinking that accompanies the e-learning activity
 The extent to which information is transformed into knowledge and product
 A move through the stages: explore > develop > interpret > design > evaluate

NC levels for ICT describe a progression in the acquisition of ICT Capability, and these provide the formal measures of what a pupil has attained in relation to using ICT.
In a broader e-learning context, Bloom's Taxonomy provides a useful framework for tracking the development of higher-order skills and competencies.
However, this is clearly an area for further action-research work in defining what e-learning looks like in practice and how we might seek to measure its impact.


Useful Links

  Unified e_Learning Strategy consultation (DfES)
The 21st Century Learning Initiative - the case for rethinking how education is organised
Opening Minds - a competency-led curriculum model (RSA)
e-Learning - a paper from Ultralab


Downloadable files  
  Learning in the 21st Century - the vision and practice of e-learning in local authorities'
Thinking Skills - definition and list (adapted from NCOnline - TLF)
The case for teaching Thinking Skills
Enquiry skills - some skills that underpin abilty
Bloom's taxonomy in practice

E-learning poster (Redbridge LEA)
E-teaching poster (Redbridge LEA)
Key characteristics of good quality teaching and learning with ICT (Naace)