Thisessay will aim to examine the role of e-learning within the modern educationsystem, principally relating to its applications, and implications for contemporarylearning and teaching practice.
This will be accomplished through a combinationof applied government policy and key theoretical learning frameworks, predominantlyconcerning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the constructivist model of learning,and the United Kingdom’s (UKs) Department for Education and Skills (DfES).First, the concept of e-learning will be defined, introduced and discussed,with specific reference to its purpose, origins and importance to anindividual’s education. As well as its influences on modern teaching pedagogyand practice. This will provide context for subsequent paragraphs, which willlook more explicitly into e-learning within the education system as a whole, bothin terms of real-world practice and educational theory. Next, the impacts ofe-learning on the teacher’s role within, and without the classroom will beexamined, with clear reference to government policy, research evidence and educationaltheory. Culminating with their collective implications for changing pedagogicalpractice within education systems, both intranationally and internationally. Followingthis, the effectiveness of e-learning in improving student educational outcomeswill be discussed in detail, largely pertaining to its links with either impairing,or improving academic attainment and educational engagement. This will beviewed equally from the perspectives of ‘e-enhanced’ models of traditionallearning and child developmental theories, supported by contemporary researchand educational policy changes.
This essay will conclude with a brief overviewof the main ideas delineated throughout the text, followed by a summary of theextent of the role that e-learning has played within the contemporary educationsystem, and a synopsis concerning whether the implications of this role havepredominantly enhanced, or undermined the quality of learning and teachingpractice within schools. The term’e-learning’ as we recognise it today has only really existed since the late1990s, when it was first referenced within a professional environment, during acomputer based learning seminar (Corbeil and Corbeil, 2015). At the time, itwas meant to express a means of learning, based upon the increasingly prevalentaccess to, and use of, new digital technologies (Littlejohn and Pegler, 2007). These technologies were allowing studentsto independently connect with online training, which was both interactive and personalisedfor the first time, via the internet and electronic media. It was believed thatthis technology would help in developing competencies among learners. Buildingupon new developments and trends in the process, which, given the nature oftechnologies dynamic outcomes and rapid advancement, would eventually lead tosystemic pedagogical change to teaching practice (Cochrane, 2012). This changewould allow learning to take place, independently and without the need for afixed time, specialist or location (Arkorful, 2014; Kirwan, 2016). Thepractice and meaning of e-learning has undertaken substantial amendments sinceits preliminary conception towards the end of the 20th century.
However, considerable debate still encompasses the term, mainlyregarding the importance of the internet in the process (Johnson and Hall,2007). This debate has meant that ‘e-learning’ is regularly used contradictory andinconsistently across a multitude of diverse academic literature. With eachauthor, modifying, adapting or outright changing the definition based upontheir own findings, context or beliefs (Mason and Rennie, 2006). Without eventhe simple foundation of a clear definition, a considerable amount of research concerninge-learning is frequently confusing and often inconsistent. One of the most significantinstances of this can be seen in the overarching divide between two ofe-learning’s earliest researches, Allison Rossett and Marc Rosenberg.
Rossettand Sheldon (2001) argue that since access to the internet is itself,fundamentally linked to a host computer, it is digital hardware, and not theWorld-Wide Web that is most essential to the notion of e-learning. This conceptis supported by Lehmann and Chamberlin (2009) who argue that, when e-learningfirst began to appear, much of the learning conducted in the area employedcomputer software such as plugins and desktop applications. As well as hardwaremainframes and CD-ROMS, not network technologies.
Since the internet itself wasstill a reasonably expensive and new invention, especially in rural areas. Ifnetwork technologies really were essential for such learning, it would not havebeen understood and defined, as it was, so early amid those progressive, butstill retrograde circumstances (Corbeil andCorbeil, 2015). Garrison (2011) expandsupon this notion, arguing that, while currently, the internet is the cheapestand most efficient means of e-learning, that by no means made it the mostcommon practice in the past. Particularly when considering the fact that plentyof e-learning did, and still does take place without internet access, even inthe modern day (Banfield and Kay, 2012).
Conversely though, Rosenberg (2001) reasonsthat e-learning as a concept is fundamentally tied to the rise of the internet,and as such it cannot take place, in any form without the use of networkedtechnologies, since, they alone are essential to the entire premise. Thus, itis the World-Wide Web, and not digital hardware that is most vital to theconcept of e-learning. Indeed, this does seem to hold true within the contextof modern schooling, given the fact that, the internet does appear to be theprimary medium though which students work on e-learning tasks, going wellbeyond the capabilities of simple interactions with a single computer(Baporikar, 2014). Merrienboer, Bastiaens and Hoogveld (2004) further thispoint, asserting that if internet access really was not necessary for e-learning,then it would have made little sense calling it ‘e-learning’ in the firstplace. Though conflicting,Rossett and Rosenberg’s definitions come the closest to explaining how most educationprofessionals understand e-learning. With more prevalent support falling uponthe formers notion of the internet as a useful extension of e-learning, asopposed to its most defining characteristic (Bhatia and Mittal, 2009). The UKgovernments DfES consultation document adds additional credibility to this perception,recognising the relevance of the internet in e-learning, but ultimately reaffirmingthe overriding importance of joint information and communication technology(ICT) tools (Department for Education and Skills, 2003). Balancing theseconflicting definitions, for the purpose of this essay, the term e-learningwill be understood to mean the delivery of learning within an educational settingthat is conducted through the use of electronic media.
This learning is possibly,but not essentially, directed via the use of the internet, with technologyacting as an enabler of the educational process, rather than a totally newmeans of learning. The role of the teacher withinthe contemporary education system has experienced significant change throughoutthe latter half of the 20th century, and early 21stcentury. A process catalysed considerably, if not entirely by the introductionof new digital technologies and e-learning into the classroom (Hughes, 2005).Through the innovations of e-learning, large volumes of relatively cheap andhigh-quality, learning resources and materials were made readily accessible tothe international community for the first time (Downes, 2007).
This level of worldwidechange and interconnectedness, was like nothing ever seen before in the historyof education. It permitted better availability of training and educationprogrammes, to a wider variety of subjects and to a numerically greateraudience. In addition to the fact that, the learning itself lowered the overalllevel of strain placed upon individual educators and was simultaneously higherin quality (Dalsgaard, 2006; Selwyn, 2011). This scale of educational development,not only in terms of increased teaching quality, but also in the improvement ofwelfare for both educators and students, is far more anomalous and substantialthan most traditional models of education can competently support, oraccommodate for (Naidu, 2006). Before this technologically driven, pedagogicalshift, educating was principally seen as a solo endeavour, with little supportfor teachers beyond their own institutions, especially before the introductionof the UK’s first national curriculum in 1988 (Watson, 2001).
Schooling was predominantlyviewed as ‘a means to an end’ for pupils, a system to be progressed through as quicklyas possible. Rote learning and didactic teaching were seen as the most effectivemeans of conveying the material necessary of this process, and so they were thetypical practice. Within this traditional environment, learning would almost entirelytake place in a fixed teaching space.
Inwhich the physical presence of the educator was paramount, and any efforts tobring about more liberal practices were at best questionable (Hay et al., 2008). These traditionalattitudes are conceivably the reason that the introduction of e-learning was sosignificant, and plausibly explains why it led to such rapid pedagogical changeon such a large scale, in such a comparatively short time. During this period,the very foundation upon which the international community regarded teachingbegan to change and adapt on a fundamental level, to suit the new requirements andtrends of an internet and digital dominated era (Bates, 2005). According to academic researchthe positive effects of e-learning on contemporary teaching pedagogy are clear.Recent research has shown that the use e-learning by teachers as’question-and-answer communities’ can meaningfully lessen the burden placedupon educators.
Who are free to act more as a facilitator of the educationprocess, while also encouraging pupils to communicate and share more willinglywith each other concerning their course content (Mazer, Murphy and Simonds,2007). Luppini and Haghi (2012), further this point arguing that e-learning canoffer practitioners unique pedagogical opportunities to supplement pupillearning. As such, it could be employed as a means to progressively alterexisting approaches and motivate more active learner interest and involvementin their own education.
In contrast though, Pierson (2014) claims that exploitinge-learning within educational practice requires a level of technological aptitudethat few practitioners, especially older teachers possess. Without this expertise,the work burden placed upon certain teachers can rise, worsening the verystressors that the integration of e-learning was intended to lessen (Al-Fudail,2008; Steen, 2008). Within the context of e-learning the role of the teacherremains a central one, remaining an essential factor in their pupil’s education,though acting more as a facilitator of the educational process, rather than itsinstructor. Perhaps the foremost influence being in the global accessibility ofshared, high-quality education materials and resources (Downes, 2007). As the use ofe-learning in education becomes increasingly prevalent, it is becomingprogressively more important to observe the impacts that it is having on pupilengagement in the schooling system (Roffe, 2002). Without adequate engagement, pupilscannot properly thrive within the schooling system.
As a result, it has been a keyconcern of consecutive UK governments, a concern which has been mirrored intheir national curriculums (Cullen, Harris and Hill, 2012). The most evident instanceof this initiative for pupil engagement, was the introduction of ‘pupilcentered’ learning paradigms into educational pedagogy. An educational modelthat is seamlessly accounted for by e-learning (Davies and Graff, 2005).
E-learning is regarded as such an efficient means of realizing this drive forstudent engagement, that it has been universally standardised across everylevel of the UK schooling system, from primary and secondary, to highereducation (Department for Education andSkills, 2003). Indeed, a substantial body of academicresearch supports this idea, showing that e-learning can improve knowledgeretention by up to sixty percent among students when compared to traditional educationalpractices (Turban, King and Lang, 2009). Suggesting that it is not only a timeefficient, but also cost-effective method of learning (Sekhon and Hartley,2014). Furthermore, e-learning also provides opportunities for pupils to take adegree of agency in their own education, learning at a speed which theyconsider suitable, through a self-developed zone of proximal development(Vygotsky, 1987; Palacios and Evans, 2013).
This level of choice within the educationalenvironment, though superficial, can also be an effective means of re-engaging formerlydisinterested pupils. Or even adults who are no longer involved in the systemat all, since it so easily adapts to, and accommodates for their specific personalneeds (Rennie and Morrison, 2013). Henrie,Halverson and Graham (2015) summarise that while existing e-learning software greatlyunderexploits the full potential of current technology. It still facilitates numerousopportunities for the creation of educational challenges and activities,whether for large groups, small groups or individuals.
Activities which, eventhrough partial exploitation, would account for a noticeable increase instudent engagement inside any learning environment, particularly when theactivities are personalised to specific classes by individual educators(Carliner and Shank, 2008). Theconstructivist theory of learning may add further support in explaining thesebenefits, since within this framework, pupils acquire new knowledge by buildingupon their prior competences and experiences, which are founded upon theirpre-existing schemata (Piaget, 1952; Holmes and Gardner, 2006). Contemporary pupilsare raised as digital natives, surrounded by the internet and digitaltechnologies from an early age. Consequently, educating them through thesee-learning approaches is rational, providing a more familiar and largerscaffold upon which to ground their learning (Desai, Hart and Richards, 2008).
Thisclosely links to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which shows that e-learning canonly be truly effective in improving engagement, once the learner’s lower needshave been addressed. Of particular concern is step four of Maslow’s theory,’esteem needs’ which is easily accounted for by e-learning within schools. Sincemost modern students, in the developed world, are very comfortable andconfidence with the use of digital technologies (Milheim, 2012). Converselythough, research has also suggested that the technologies associated withe-learning can hinder student engagement, offering the temptation ofdistraction and promoting procrastination, even amongst formerly well behaved pupils.This idea is furthered by Issa, Isaias and Kommers (2015) who go so far as tocontend that the persistent availability of online social networks. Includingthose intended for learning purposes, are impairing the capabilityof their users to properly focus. Scattering their attention to such a degreethat they may no longer be able to efficiently concentrate on individual tasksat a time, as is typically mandatory within a traditional classroom setting.
Moreover, some research suggests that a critical failing of e-learning within modernpolicy and practice, is its failure to sufficiently account for the fact thatnot all students, have the same access to, and aptitude in, the use of thedigital technologies associated with it. Disadvantaging those pupils without,and preventing them from fully engaging with the rest of their peers (McArdle et al., 2015). Studentattainment within the contemporary education system has become a key concernfor most national governments, especially following the introduction of the Programme for International StudentAssessment (PISA) league tables and other internationalranking systems. Several models of learning attempt to clarify the main successfactors necessary in improving student attainment in an educational setting,and thus, may help in explaining and supporting the effectiveness ofe-learning. As previously mentioned, the constructivist theory of educationoffers considerable support to the concept of e-learning, appreciating it as afamiliar tool upon which students can scaffold their personal learning (Desai,Hart and Richards, 2008).
This learning is founded upon the pupil’s prior experiencesand knowledge base, which in the case of digital natives, is primarily centeredon the use of the internet and digital technologies (Prensky, 2004). Moreover,the freedom associated with e-learning can afford pupils the opportunity toeducate themselves, boosting their grades, and becoming more effective learnersin the process (Liaw, Huang and Chen, 2007). Gagne’s Nine Events of learningfurther supports the potential benefits of e-learning, since most activities linkedwith e-learning tie in well with its measures for effective educational pedagogy(Corbeil and Corbeil, 2015). For example, e-learning is very effective atgaining the learners attention, through graphical, audio and animation design,while simultaneously delineating clear objectives for the pupil to follow, andencouraging the practice and use of newly developed skills. Research evidencehas also supported the use of e-learning in education, finding that just onehour of e-learning participation could increase academic performance by amodest, but noticeable, one per cent (Rodgers, 2008).
For these reasons, itappears important for educators to utilise e-learning technologies wheneverpossible. However, much of the research evidence supporting this link betweenacademic attainment and e-learning is largely circumstantial, with even theDepartment for Education and Skills (2003) acknowledging that they have verylittle conclusive evidence to support the effectiveness of e-learning inenhancing academic performance. Indeed, this is likely because e-learning istechnically no different from regular learning, it is just an alternative meansof deploying it. Albeit one that proposes far more significant changes to theeducation system than other models (Rossiter, 2013).
Some current researchfurthers these negative claims, finding that pupils involved in the use of theinternet and digital technologies for an average of thirty hours per week,spent eighty-eight per cent less of their free time studying. Receiving testresults twenty per cent lower than those pupils who did not have digitaltechnologies readily available to them (Mallia, 2013; Tella, 2015). Overall, within the moderneducation system the role of e-learning is as clear as its impacts arenumerous. Through its introduction, e-learning has been irreversibly tied to contemporaryschooling and this is unlikely to change, so long as it remains the mostefficient and cost-effective means of conveying knowledge between students andeducators. While e-learning has not yet received the chance to trulyrevolutionise the ways in which we teach and how we learn. It has utilisedmodern interactive technologies and communication systems to improve the educationalexperience of students substantially, from one of solitude, to one ofcommunity. While simultaneously transforming the ways in which we learn and howwe teach, though to a lesser extent than they effectively could have. This is particularlythe case given the backing e-learning has received from the social constructivistapproach to learning, particularly Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development andMaslow’s hierarchy of needs, both of which easily accommodate for e-learningwithin their theoretical frameworks.
Almost two decades of existence has shownthat the use of e-learning can never fully substitute the role of the teacher,since it is their emotional, and physical connection to the pupils that hasdefined schooling since education as a concept first began. However, inconjunction with pre-existing methods, e-learning can significantly improve thereach and quality of an educators teaching, while concurrently reducing the workburden placed upon them. Furthermore, e-learning also has the potential toenable every learner, whether urban, rural, young or old, to realise theirfullest potential within the education system. Culminating in a workforceempowered to make real change, whether for the detriment of the wider society,or to its betterment.