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The bottom line: effective learning versus low per unit cost.

In a scathing article at E-learning magazine, consultant Frank L. Greenagel attacks the current state of the art in e-learning. He argues that an obsession with low unit cost and a disregard for learning effectiveness has led to courses that are interoperable but "puerile, boring and of unknown or doubtful effectiveness".

The chief targets of Greenagel's ire are customers' focus on low unit cost and high throughput, developers that aren't aware of effective learning models, the notion that existing platforms and specifications drive e-learning pedagogy, high costs that drive good but expensive solutions out for cheap and shoddy ones, and a lack of recognition of the fact that effective e-learning experiences don't scale.

While the author's vested interest as a developer of costly custom courseware may need to be born in mind, his arguments are certainly substantial enough to warrant closer examination.

Low unit costs and the possibility of putting large numbers of learners through are undoubtedly major factors in the adoption of on-line learning systems. Given the immediate savings that e-learning systems promise, it is easy to forget that a decent return on investment (ROI) analysis should also take learning effectiveness into consideration.

And there's the rub: for all the many specifications, there is no agreed measure for learning effectiveness. Still, to blame the drive for interoperability standards for that lack seems a little disingenuous; those standards were never meant for that purpose. Nor is there necessarily an "inherent contradiction between the centrality of learning effectiveness to the long range success of e-learning and the drive for interoperability" This is only a problem if you assume that interoperable systems can only accommodate cookie-cutter courses. They certainly can, but well designed specifications that strike a sound balance between technological needs and pedagogic flexibility should enable much more.

That is not to say that a lot of e-learning development isn't driven to a great extent by what the current specifications presume. As noted in an earlier CETIS article, there are a number of valid questions one can raise about the learning objects notion that underpins SCORM. Do they accommodate different contexts and learner styles? Do people actually learn in bite-size chunks? Whatever you might think the answers are, it is undeniable that such learning objects do accommodate relatively cheap course development and efficient and fine-grained re-purposing of material. Which leads us straight back to the false economy signaled earlier.

Greenagel's complaint that developers aren't necessarily good teachers may indeed explain the existence of some of the less imaginative courses on offer. At the very least, it demonstrates that factors like the appropriateness of some learning models to a limited range of competencies and, again, up-front costs have have won out over effectiveness too often. This is not entirely surprising for a relatively young domain, but it also ought to be a reminder of where we need to be heading next.

Other than a much greater emphasis on effectiveness, where we should be heading next according to Greenagel, are e-learning environments that are more case study and project based. Learners learn best when grappling with life-like problems collectively and in a controlled but flexible environment. While one could easily criticize this as appropriate for vocational applications only, it does indicate the more general need to develop e-learning courses that are more collaborative, context sensitive and less constrained by what is technically expedient. Even if it does mean more authoring and fewer eyeballs using a course at the same time.

Looking at the bigger picture, criticism of the (perceived) pedagogic inadequacies of present e-learning courses or the specifications that constrain them seems likely to increase. After all, it is in the nature of a maturing field that relatively low level issues will, initially, get more attention than the finer points of the experience. That is not to say that the learning technology standardization process is now over. Far from it, in fact, because the more challenging questions still have to be settled: to what extent can different social contexts, learning styles and learning objectives be accommodated in the same content specifications? Do we even want to try, or should we go for a more hierarchical approach where basic data types and protocols are fixed, but the shape, size and sequencing of content are maximally flexible?

For an impassioned plea for the latter, see Greenagel's original article at E-learning magazine.

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