Knowing our place in the learning revolution

Lately I’ve been feeling more and more jaded about the web. It’s not that it’s not an amazing invention that’s changing the world – clearly it is, and we’ve only begun to glimpse the possibilities of a connected world. The problem is, I think a lot of people are looking at it as a replacement for things that already exist and work well.

I read websites and blogs, for sure, but I also subscribe to three magazines at home: Empire, for movie reviews, Writer’s News because I still have a crazy pipe dream that I’ll write a novel someday, and The New Yorker because I think it’s consistently the best written English language magazine in the world. They have different uses: I wouldn’t subscribe to an Internet magazine, for example, because information goes out of date too quickly for a monthly publication to be able to cope. At the same time, although I could read most of the stories from The New Yorker online, it’s not the same as flicking through the pages in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee by my side.

Just as blogs won’t replace magazines except where immediacy is important, e-learning systems cannot be a replacement for actual teaching. When Elgg was in the Guardian last week there was an article across the page with an awful quote from JISC; I don’t have the paper in front of me, but it can be paraphrased as “all learners are becoming distance learners”. What they meant was that the technologies they’re using for distance learners is becoming the same technology they use for on-site students, but I couldn’t help thinking how that could be misconstrued, and how easy it is to assume that any solution that brings in computers is a good one. It isn’t.

If I thought Elgg would put an end to face-to-face tutorials, or prevent students from meeting in the pub to discuss a shared interest, I’d stop development tomorrow and put the whole thing in mothballs. It won’t, of course, but what a scary thought. Nothing can replace face-to-face teaching; nothing can replace face-to-face conversation. Anything we develop needs to be a nice extra, not the central mechanism behind education. In a wider context, the best applications on the web are the ones that will facilitate real-world interaction, which is what, ultimately, we hope Elgg will do.

Because these technologies exist in this space, the most vocal members online are going to come across as the most important. This is wrong: the most important people are the students and teachers who don’t participate. In terms of changing things, the most important people are the ones who make the decisions. The rest of us are just commentators and people with ideas trying to push the envelope. What we tend to do in the weblog sphere is chat amongst ourselves, when we ought to be wise to the fact that most people don’t read weblogs; most people, although they might be online in a nominal sense, don’t really participate. The important discussions and interactions still need to happen in the real world, and although it’s nice to be cutting edge, the real importance is to bring the added value that online spaces have the potential of providing – and to have these conversations with people on the outside.

Evangelising isn’t the right approach, because it assumes that online resources are always better. I think the best way – the only sensible way – is to provide the online approach as an option when solutions to a problem are being considered, and to be rigorous about the selection process. If it turns out to be the best solution, great. If not, that’s fine too: pick that different, offline option. If we consider everything on a case-by-case basis (with an eye on the wider picture), we know the people we’re trying to serve are getting the best deal.






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