Education Technology has been around for decades, and has gone through various iterations in its form and function. Depending on how you define it and what you include; the market size for education technology is in billions or tens of billions of dollars. The market potential, however, is much larger, and hence there is significant venture capital money that is being poured into EdTech startups that are attempting to find a solution to tackle some of the big problems in Education - everything from improving access and efficiency, to efficacy and outcomes.
There is a lot of talk about using technology in Education. There are many believers, who see a future of a technology-driven classroom, but there are many sceptics as well as they struggle to find good examples of technology making a real difference in learning and education. In many instances, technology has been either forced upon or handed to the teacher or the student without much focus on how it supports pedagogy, and its impact on the teaching & learning process.
One of the main streams of Education Technology has been eLearning. The promise of eLearning was to enable learning at one’s own pace and time and address the basic but important challenge of access to learning and improving the efficiency in delivering the learning. In the last decade, eLearning has become synonymous with online learning, as most eLearning is now delivered over some online learning platform.
The Unfulfilled Promise?
With learning management systems (LMSs) which are used to deliver the eLearning content, technically learners can access their learning whenever they want, but most often they don’t end up accessing or completing the learning assigned to them. So in a way, while learning is more accessible, the end goal of learners actually accessing the content and learning from it has not been achieved.
Most traditional LMSs do not take into account the common scenario that most learners don’t wake up everyday wanting to learn and raring to go online and continue learning on the LMS. Even if some of the learners did wake up one day wanting to learn, other issues such as usability of systems, and nature of content cause enough friction and resistance. Low engagement is one of the reasons that leads to the less than 10% completion rates for MOOCs, despite having content from top universities and self-registration (which would indicate a genuine interest in the learning topic).
Engagement in the learning process, especially when delivered using an online medium, is a critical ingredient to ensure success of the learning program. The more engaged the learners, the higher their chance of completing the program and actually learning.
Building a Learning Community
To make learning engaging, we need to understand what drives user engagement and learn from services and solutions that have managed to engage their online audience. Social networks, and online games come to mind as platforms where user engagement is high. Facebook provided a way to stay connected with friends even though you cannot meet often, and games provide incentives to keep playing through their design, as well as rewards elements such as points and badges.
Face-to-face learning programs, where engagement is typically much higher than online programs, provide an avenue for learners to interact and network, so they can discuss, collaborate on projects, and clarify each other's’ doubts. Online programs lose this rich interaction and focus on the flexibility of learning anytime anywhere. This trade-off in traditional online learning platforms does not work well for learning engagement and in-turn the success of the learning program.
In order to extend the richness of face-to-face program in a flexible way, we need to start building online learning communities, instead of traditional eLearning platforms. The purpose of the two systems are different. The primary objective of a traditional LMS for eLearning is being able to deliver the learning content. Whereas the objective of building a learning community is to provide a space for learners to discuss with each other, to share ideas and questions, to tap into the knowledge of the teachers and experts in an asynchronous way, and learn through the power of the network.
Apart from structured learning, that is delivered through the learning resources shared by the teacher/trainer, there is a lot of unstructured or informal learning that happens through interactions & discussions with other learners. This unstructured or informal learning is completely missing from traditional online learning, but can be retained and even improved in a collaborative learning platform.
A collaborative learning platform focuses on building an online learning community, whilst enabling access of structured learning resources and tracking of engagement and learning outcomes.
The Holy Grail
Technology has the ability to address several challenges in Education, which can make a meaningful impact to the world. There are many versions of the future of Education where technology plays either a leading role or a supporting role in transforming Education. The effectiveness of the technology is unclear, and the role of technology in Education is still undecided, but the promise of technology is certainly massive and transformative.
While we may not know how exactly technology will solve problems of Education or Online Learning in particular, we do have a clearer picture of what will not work. Online learning should not be about watching a video late at night, or going through some slides, but having the ability to ask questions if one does not understand everything in that video, or discuss and reflect on what has been taught.
Increasingly, Contact hours (whether in Higher Education, Adult learning or Enterprise training) are reducing. Learners are unable to spend as much time in physical classrooms, and are demanding flexibility and hence institutions need to have an online learning delivery model. As more institutions adopt a blended (mix of face-to-face and online) or pure online learning programs, they face a significant challenge of building learning engagement and continuing to offer the rich interaction and collaboration experience of the face-to-face learning programs.
While traditional LMSs check boxes in providing access to learning and improving efficiency, they fall short in fulfilling the promise, not due to the lack of features, but due to the lack of engagement of learners, and in many instances teachers as well, with the platform. Collaborative learning offers the access & efficiency of traditional LMSs, but importantly offers a more critical ingredient, that of a learning community which drives engagement in the learning process, and hence has a fairer shot at fulfilling the promise of an improved learning program and a better future for Education.
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