20 years in e-learning

In June of this year it was twenty years since I set up my first web server for delivering e-learning courses. I’m using this anniversary to reflect on my experiences in educational technology over the last 20 years. I’ll have a look at some of the things we got right and some of the things we got wrong and why, after all these years, I’m still an optimist.

What did we get right?

Well a lot of people have done many good things. There has been a huge amount of innovation at the edges of higher education. We’ve found out a lot about how people learn in higher education and the technology has allowed us to try things that just weren’t possible before.

For me the highlights have been in following the work of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Bonnie Stewart, Alec Couros, Steve Wheeler, Audrey Watters, Jim Groom, Catherine Cronin, Tony Bates, David Wiley, Doug Belshaw, Keith Hampson and in Australia and New Zealand Leigh Blackall, Joyce Seitzinger, Tim Klapdor, Sarah Thorneycroft, Dean Groom, David Jones and Kate Bowles. There are many others as well that I could mention.

I’ve been able to work with the ideas of these thinkers and relate them to my own thoughts and practices. Sometimes they’re reinforcements, sometimes they take me down a completely new direction. Either way, they’ve constantly surprised and delighted me over the years.

Other highlights of the last twenty years are the growth of open education, open courses, connected, social and rhizomatic learning. All of these have been enabled by advances in technology that allow people to communicate, share and build much more easily than ever before.

What did we get wrong?

We expected too much (and too little) from academic staff and we still do.

In the mid 90’s I’d set up a web server and was using a WYSIWIG editor to create static web pages.  I thought it was easy. I was wrong. I thought every academic would be able to do this and would want to do this. I was wrong. Only a very small proportion wanted to do it and could do it.

In the late 90’s, learning management systems came along and universities said great, now academics don’t need to know any of that technical stuff, they can just use the web interface in the LMS. They’ll produce stuff. We might just need to provide a bit of training. They were wrong. Only a small proportion either wanted to do it or could do it. For many, this was (and still is) a viewed as a technical process that they have no interest in.

And so it has continued. Universities upgrade their LMS with the newer web technology (although generally significantly behind the UX of mainstream web sites) in the hope that this will make it super easy for academics to create online courses. But it doesn’t happen. Universities buy digital repositories, collaboration tools, eportfolios, lecture capture tools, anti-plagiarism tools and all manner of online stuff that promises a beautiful user interface that will allow content to be created quickly and easily. Only it doesn’t. Mostly.

Of course I have so say that a small proportion of academic staff have done exceptional things with the technologies provided. But these are isolated examples. Islands of innovation in a sea of tradition.

So when you look at the bigger picture you see a smorgasbord of technologies acquired by universities with the fairly random hope that it will somehow trickle across the institution. Note that this is not even trickle down. It’s trickle across. It’s no wonder there is no widespread adoption of e-learning and edtech across the institution. Academics have been expected to absorb the techniques skills and understanding necessary to design and deliver online and blended learning as well as everything else they do. And the everything else bit is rated much higher in terms of career progression.

So my position has changed completely. Originally I thought the academic staff member should be the creator and designer of online learning for their subjects. Now I disagree. It’s simply too complicated. When I started as an academic life was easy. I was expected to lecture, give tutorials and maybe seminars or laboratories depending on the topic. I didn’t have to wonder whether I should used a wiki or a blog or a journal with my students. I didn’t have to worry about online collaboration, synchronous web based communications, maker spaces or even the degree of blend between online and offline learning.

As an aside, I think we have massively overcomplicated online learning. But even a simplified approach is complex and requires much more thought and care than was ever the case when I started.

One of my favourite quotes is:

Perfection (in design) is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This is actually very hard to do.

The complexity of online and blended course design and delivery has huge implications for course quality and efforts to mainstream e-learning delivery. We can’t expect academic staff to do this. Let alone do it well.

This means that the role of academic staff in online course design and delivery has to change. The role of the academic staff member should be as the subject matter expert and to provide ‘teaching’ into an online space. But they should not be expected to design and run the course themselves. They are a critical member of a team that produces online learning. They provide raw content and expertise. Everything else needs to come from the remaining members of the course team; that is learner experience designer, learning designer, developer, media production etc.

Once the course is running the academic member of the course delivery team should interact with the learners through the design channels and provide the required feedback and guidance. That is to say, they should teach online. These are the skills that we should expect modern academic staff to possess and these are the areas that should be the focus of staff development efforts. Not withstanding the clear resource implications of this approach it remains a difficult change to get right. I’ve worked with several organisations in tertiary education that have sought to implement this sort of model with varying degrees of success. I won’t discuss their different approaches now but I am convinced that it can succeed if implemented correctly.

We didn’t think about the learner experience.

What I mean by this is that we haven’t had a consistent view of what learners should expect from their experience. It is only recently that learner experience design is starting to become identified as a distinct area of practice through the work of people like Joyce Seitzinger and Jess Knott at http://lxdesign.co and others.

This is not surprising. Higher education has traditionally not offered a great learner experience when you consider the complete lifecyle of interactions that a learner has with the higher education organisation. For universities it has traditionally been a sink or swim approach where the learner is expected to navigate the hurdles of administration and learning with little input or guidance. There are without doubt some great individual learner experiences but these are left to the individual academic or tutor.

The argument has been that learners in higher education are adults and can work it out for themselves. To do otherwise is sometimes seen as tantamount to spoon feeding. It’s almost as if it’s some sort of Spartan ritual that has to be endured as part of the initiation to being a graduate.

I don’t agree with this view. Learners in higher education clearly need to be responsible for their own learning but this does not abrogate responsibility for designing a learner experience that allows for that whilst minimising the friction that typifies many current learner interactions. By so doing the learner is allowed to focus on their learning and not on the frustrations of poorly designed interactions.

Nowhere is this more true than in online interactions.  We have not done a good job of creating a learner experience that allows most learners to engage with confidence in an online environment and we’ve done an appalling job of allowing learners to take control of their own learning. This is typified by the attempts to constrain the learning environments within which learners are expected to engage with each other. No wonder they go and create their own Facebook groups.

Over the last few years we have started to see the role of Learning Designer evolve in higher education. Although I’ve been working with people with that title for a number of years I still find the term ill defined and highly variable in the expectations that people have of the role.

As the profession evolves, learning designers will become more important in creating great learning opportunities but they will need to work with learner experience designers who will take a wider view and ensure that every aspect of a learner’s journey is as delightful as possible.

We allowed people that want everything to be closed to get their way.We shouldn’t have.

When we built our first set of online courses in the late 90’s, before we used an LMS, our colleagues asked if the content would be protected. Personally I didn’t mind if my own content was open access but others were concerned that their material would be ‘stolen’ or that learners would be able to get something for nothing. It was difficult to argue against at that time and I still see many academic staff struggling with the concept today.

There remains a misconception about what a higher education constitutes. Even in an age of abundant information many still see the course content as being the ‘product’ that is being provided to learners. It’s not. What you get from higher education is curated content (that can come from anywhere), interactions with experts and peers and some form of credential. Sadly the credential has traditionally been based on a time served model coupled with a an assessment of knowledge and understanding.

Some problems with a closed model are that:

  • We spend a huge amount of time and effort making things closed.
  • The quality of open material is undoubtedly better than for closed content.
  • We replicate things over and over again in closed silos instead of building, forking and sharing.
  • We lose an opportunity to recognise and reward individuals and organisations on scholarly activity that’s not based on research publications or grant success.

There are many proponents of openness in higher education and many great initiatives. I think that the trend is moving to increased openness but it is slow moving.

We overemphasised tech solutions to try and get widespread adoption of digital technologies in higher education.

Developing staff is hard. I’ve already spoken about it earlier. Unfortunately many higher education organisations have been reluctant to invest in new kinds of roles. The casualisation of the workforce is an important issue across the sector. There has been a tendency to invest in technology and not in staff.

What the sector should have done was invest in learning technology educators. Instead what many did was invest in, what they hoped where, magic technology bullets. They weren’t.

The LMS is a case in point. It was seen as a magic bullet but the LMS needs skill to use and its difficult to get consistently high quality in using them. Large scale lecture capture is another magic bullet. I’ve written about their use before. The idea was that all staff would have to do would be record their lectures and then they’d automatically be put on line. Brilliant right? Well that assumes that your academic gives a good lectures that don’t contain huge amounts of copyright infringing material and that, pedagogically, you are happy about perpetuating a sage on the stage approach of passive ‘learning’.

You get my point about higher education prioritising technology over either staff development or new staff roles.

I think that might be finally changing but we’ll see.

We simply transferred traditional delivery to digital and expected it to work.

This skuomorphic approach to educational technology was inevitable I guess but it has been problematic nonetheless. Take BlackBoard (the name says it all) or any other LMS which simply replicates the structure and format of traditional courses but in an online environment.

The arguments for skuomorphism are that familiarity encourages adoption. I think there is something to be said for this but what happened was that the limitations of traditional delivery such as timetabling, semesters (a scheduling device based on medieval agriculture patterns)  have been allowed to establish themselves as the norm for online delivery.

The cumulative effect was to minimize one of the great benefits of online learning – it’s inherent flexibility. It was only when the large MOOCS arrived and shook up the university administrators that they collectively lifted their heads from the sand. This is probably one of the few good things that has resulted from the rise of the xMOOCs.

As a result we’ve started to see any change in the way courses are organised online in terms of delivery. Things like rolling enrolments, self paced courses, short courses, trimesters mean that we can start to provide learning much more flexibly to those that want it.

We didn’t apply what we learned and then we allowed elite universities to reinvent everything we had already learned.

A lot of clever people have done of a lot of research and innovation in e-learning and educational technology over the last 20 years. We know what works and what doesn’t. Many of these findings have been ignored, even by the institutions that have traditionally had a higher focus on learning and teaching.

Recently high profile, research intensive institutions have decided that they should invent e-learning for themselves without any consideration of the work that has been done by others. Tony Bates has made this point several times on his blog including here – MIT and German research on the [appalling] use of video in xMOOCs.

The end result is that we have lost a decade in thinking about e-learning in higher education. We collectively slipped back into a simplified model of video, quiz, video, quiz for serving basic e-learning. In actual fact both of those techniques, whilst valuable in their own right, are not the only (or indeed in many cases the best) way of structuring learning online.

Why I’m still an optimist.

Despite all of the things that we got wrong I am still an optimist. I am hopeful that, as things become more open and interoperable and users take more control over their online identity we will reach a position where learners can, similarly, take control over their own learning. At the same time I think that universities are finally starting to respond to the challenges. After years of paying lip service to the internet we are finally seeing structural modifications and investment in the provision of high level online learning capabilities.

Initiatives appear to more focused and well resourced. New semi autonomous organisational units are being created to design and develop e-learning. New appointments at senior level indicate that higher education administrators are acting. I sense a new attitude to openness, sharing, distributing learning and allowing learners to take control.

There is a long way to go yet and I’ve no doubt that many frustrations lie ahead but I’m feeling more excited about the future of e-learning in higher education than I have for many years.

You can view this post as a Sway below:

Feature image credit: Ninteen… Twenty…… by Kat Northern Lights Man / CC BY-NC

11 Comments On “20 years in e-learning”

  1. Thanks Mark for sharing some of your insights born out of a wealth of experience. I see similarities in the corporate sector, in particular in the role of the employee.

    In the higher ed sector, it is curious that an economics or law SME is charged with teaching his or her students, with the barest of training in education – if any at all. In the corporate sector, we have sought to solve this problem by defining the role of the “trainer”, that is to say, the know-it-all who can teach-it-all. But both sectors have put the cart before the horse.

    In terms of human resources, what we actually need are education SMEs (or whatever semantics we wish to argue). So in the higher ed sector, yes, we need learning designers are others to guide and scaffold and consult and support the topical SMEs in achieving their educational outcomes. In the corporate sector, we need L&D pro’s to do the same with the experts in the business.

    The way we have been doing it thus far is so unsustainable that I am surprised it has lasted for so long. Yet that’s what happens when no one questions the system.


  2. Thank you for sharing those insights. I am still fairly new to this field, and I find your observations to be highly informative.

    At the risk of appearing slightly outré, I think your post is a wonderful piece of e-learning material. 🙂


  3. Thanks for the mention Mark. There must be something in the air that has us old fogeys reflecting. I’m definitely in <a href="https://davidtjones.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/digital-learning-its-like-deja-vu-all-over-again/"that mode.

    Perhaps I’m captured by my own experiences, but I remain skeptical of the success (and practicality) of the “Academic as SME” model. That’s the model that was used in the old print-based distance education approaches that I experienced in the early 1990s, and it produced crap outcomes.

    There were lots of possible reasons for that. The limited affordances of the available technologies is an obvious one. But there were two bigger problems. Scaling that approach across an entire University (or even just the subset of courses offered via distance education) lead to fairly limited teams. In turn, this resulted in a templated, factory model of course design that had significant problems. And it’s this templates, factory model of course “design” that I’m seeing rise within universities now.


    • That’s an excellent point David. I agree with your concerns. I make a couple of observations.

      1. What other model is there? The academic as developer, designer and SME doesn’t work. And in my mind shouldn’t be made to work. I want my university academics to be SMEs. I don’t want them to be ed designers/developers/multimedia people.

      2. I think universities clearly have to commit to resourcing design and production teams that can scale. They’ve never wanted to in the past because they think that their key staff are academics. The academics get upset when universities appoint academics because they think they’re workload goes up to support so called admin staff. We’re in a new reality now university are knowledge generators and distributors and, guess what, the distribution of that knowledge is just as important as generating it in the first place. There is a reason science communicators are in such demand.

      3. Leading on from point 2. Universities are in a sink or swim position now. There are an increasing number of suppliers of advanced levels skills and knowledge. If I want to learn coding I will go to pluralsight or lynda or one of a number of others. These services won’t limit themselves to providing learning for IT. They’ll do it for other areas too. Universties will have to provide high quality online learning and they’ll have to resource it.


      • Sorry Mark. I didn’t subscribe to updates and have only just come back to your post while in the process of writing a post of my own. Will touch a little on the shape of what I think is one way of thinking about this, no promises on the quality.


  4. Pingback: All models are wrong, but some are useful and its application to e-learning | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  5. I’m sorry I hadn’t seen this before your surprise visit yesterday Mark. I’m going to attempt a usual left-of-field response, but first let me say I’m very impressed you’ve held out 20 years, and that after all that time you’re still optimistic and energetic enough to put yourself out there. I’m a little over half your time and I’m just about spent!

    I certainly agree with your summary of what ‘we’ did wrong. But I pause at your use of it to lobby for more educational designers and specialists.

    I’m going to use that wonderful quote against your proposal:

    Perfection (in design) is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    What if we did that, seriously. Took away The LMS, the institutional email, the lecture capture, the IT support, the educational designers and developers, the layers and layers of admin and managers, the obsessive codification, hell! At least 2/3rds of the modern university – especially if networks of teachers and learners have formed beyond any institution (such as in our field). Basically get rid of anything and everything that stands between someone who can teach and someone who wants to learn. All that would remain would be some buildings, some labs and special equipment, WiFi, teachers and students and very simple administration.

    But there would be design:

    We’d put down some compelling principles that guide practice. Not a “strategic plan” like all the other university strategic plans I’ve seen out there, but a manifesto of sorts, compelling, relevant, editable, and supported by logical and fresh policies. I like “Free access to the sum of all human knowledge” for example, but that’s been taken. Oh look! We might have found a leading partner…

    I think we all agree that openness be a principle… I would hope that those principles be shaped by what we discover in how people learn outside the institutions. Very very little research goes on there. Maybe we could collect what little there is and use it in the Wikipedia article for Networked Learning. An an example of policy inspired by these new principles, you might check out the Proposed Policy on Intellectual Property I helped develop while at Uni of Canberra. The NTEU glowingly endorsed it.. I’m very proud of this work, I’m sad it has not been recognised.

    We’ll also need to accept that the vast majority of practice will be ‘poor’. As it always has been. I think our anxiety over the problem of successfully scaling online practice is unwarranted. I’m sure the same ratio existed before the Internet, it was just less obvious. The problem is systemic, if you take an Illich frame of mind. Universities are autocratic societies with almost no free agency, no democratic process, utterly disenfranchising, and arguably more like a medium of social control than of intellectual freedom and development. Even more so now that 70% of the workforce is casual, precarious and directed. This would be an interesting field of research to pursue. I’m convinced that institutionalised education has bureaucratised teaching and learning right out of people, and that we can work to undo a great deal of that.

    I realise that such a change process seems far outside our reach. Such are the layers of hierarchy, payscales and control that systematically cause us to think so low. But perhaps your proposed solution could be used to create that change. But I would suggest that more of ‘us’ start teaching in the mainstream, and/or make evident to the mainstream our various ways of teaching and learning – after we better articulate the principles we generally embody, freed from the institutional constraints. Let’s try and resist interfering with other teachers via managerial mandates. Let’s offer to teach with them, in a friendly kind of way, to demonstrate or lead by example, and withdraw if our principles are compromised. I had the opportunity to do it once, at the University of Canberra, teaching a subject I knew little about, with a co-teacher who did . We networked that course. If you search “BPS2011” you’ll see the online footprint we left in one single instance of the course. Assessments were multilingual, student generated content. The exam was a spectacular event! It was a remarkable success in taking a failing course and turning it around using those same principles we have not yet articulated, and all without triggering any of the bureaucracy of the host university. Sadly, the main teacher came back from holidays and went back to their old ways, but the students and other staff saw the difference. We inspired a change in imagining of what was possible, but the university system eventually crushed all hope of it scaling, as the casuals moved on and the full timers quit…

    Sorry for the long and heavy comment, I’ve posted it on my blog as well, to network this and in case you’d rather discuss it tangentially.


    • Thank you for your very considered and well articulated points Leigh. I agree with everything you say. I guess the difference is in how we each view the possibilities/probabilities of your vision happening (at least in my lifetime). I’m very sorry it has taken me so long to reply.


  6. 1 year on and Facebook reminded me of the dead silence I gave this thread.


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