Module 1 - Understanding the reasons
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Revenues from e-learning are expected to reach over 11 billion dollars by the year 2003. What is e-learning? Where did it come from and why is it becoming so popular? There are many ideas as to what constitutes an effective online learning environment, and before we attempt to define them and learn how to design and create them, we will gain a basic understanding of how and why education is changing so dramatically.


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Michael Shaw, 5 minutes

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Simply put, e-learning can be defined as the systematic use of networked computer technologies to connect learners with other people and resources. There are many reasons for using technology for learning, which include the improvement of learning and making specific learning more readily accessible. Has the technology changed the way we do things or has the way we do things created the technology? 

The paradigm of education that most of us grew up with has its roots in standardization, conformity and compliance, analogous with Industrial-age manufacturing. At one time, society required that agricultural workers be trained for factory jobs, and consequently, the educational system was designed to cater to the mentality of mass production. Today, our educational systems are slow to change, and there is still a tendency to educate individuals as if preparing them for a life of machine and assembly line work. The information age has brought us into an era where more specific, personalized and customized approaches to everything are required, including education. Why is this so?

The movement of physical goods has traditionally been the basis for our social interactions. However, we now live in a world where knowledge, ideas and intelligence are the basis of our modern human existence. These are the attributes of a global knowledge-based society, being rich in social interaction and social organization. This type of society is not a prediction or a futuristic vision. It is a present reality.

In a communication-rich, networked society, the movement of money and investments is globally situated, while labour for the most part remains individualized. The working class comprises a number of subordinate functions that are segregated, but which contribute value to a global economy through knowledge. Those workers with knowledge of how to function in a knowledge-based society and incorporate new ideas and technologies are highly sought after. Moving from a society of conformity and compliance into a knowledge-based one requires us to have more diverse perspectives and individuality in order to solve increasingly complex problems. Although still valid, the memorization and procedural skill development techniques of the past cannot (alone) meet the modern demands for higher levels of learning. In order to remain viable and survive in a labor market driven by rapidly changing demands, today's workers must know how to quickly update their knowledge and skills on a continual basis throughout their lifetimes.

Therefore, learning should be designed to encourage and support a society of lifelong learners. The present state of communication information technology is clearly posed to meet this growing need, and the paradigm that has emerged for education in this century is based on the attributes of networked learning. It enables the ability of individuals to learn anything, anywhere, anytime - by, from or with anyone. This also implies that modern educational practices must be aimed at seeing that each individual's specific learning needs are met. For the most part, this cannot be accomplished by having learners receive standardized facts and information passively en mass as was done in the past. 



Standardization Customization
Bureaucratic organization Team-based organization
Centralized control Autonomy with accountability
Adversarial relationships Cooperative relationships
Autocratic decision making Shared decision making
Compliance Initiative
Conformity Diversity
Compartmentalization Holism

FIGURE 1.  If we consider some of the key markers illustrated above that distinguish the differences between industrial-age and information-age organizations, we can see that there is a need for education to comply with these improved ways of doing things - not only in what we teach, but also in how we teach.

Ideally, the structure of the education we deliver should match the structure of the environment or society into which our learners will ultimately go, and where they are going has changed dramatically in the past few years.


When we think of a knowledge-based society, we think of computer networks, and we think of our educational systems the places where knowledge is supposed to be created and transformed. To be effective, our learning environments must become like knowledge workers, in that they must learn to continually re-interpret and respond effectively to changes and needs. Knowledge must be actively reconstructed according its context of purpose. 

Communication information technology is empowering and propagating the existence of our global knowledge-based society, and one does wonder if the change is driving new technologies, or if new technologies are driving the change. Technology is about tools that help us to do things better.  Increased perception on how we do things will always lead to enlightenment and advancement. New tools give mankind more understanding about himself and the universe, and this leads to better conceptualizations and perceptions about everything, including how to teach and learn, and how to create even better tools.

We know that good instruction requires an educationally sound foundation and a process for its development. However, the medium, the message and society have changed. Creating pedagogically sound instructional material in an online or multimedia format involves more than simply transferring and uploading existing (mostly textual) information into an electronic format. There are important design issues to be dealt with that are more in line with newer learning paradigms. 

Mankind is now entering into the knowledge age. Focusing on the context of information is the premise of this age, as there is no present shortage of information today, just perhaps a lack of understanding of what to do with it all. Moving from a data processing era into one of wisdom building will require educational strategies that create life long learners who possess the skills, knowledge and attitudes to develop their own personal styles of more specific, practical learning. 


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© 2000 MIchael Shaw