E-Learning 101

Posted Oct. 17, 2010, at 6:49 p.m.

Distance learning is getting a lot of positive buzz in Maine higher education circles, primarily because it will allow students of all ages and means to complete coursework at any hour of the day from their homes in Monson, Eastport, Patten or Skowhegan. But Curt Madison, the new director of distance learning for the University of Maine System, says it is so much more, with the potential to take education beyond, not just out of the classroom. State leaders must understand that distance learning is not just watching a professor lecture by closed-circuit TV if that potential is to be realized.

The first distance learning helped the sort of people who weren’t welcome in college classrooms, Mr. Madison said — often women, and those older than the typical college age. Correspondence school was the first version of distance learning, but as technology improved, audio conferencing and then closed-circuit television was used.

From the 1970s until just a few years ago, Mr. Madison worked on distance learning in Alaska, a state especially reliant on innovative methods of connecting students with instruction. In the early days, such alternative methods were understood as pale imitations of the traditional classroom model. Now, distance learning is understood as being equal to or better than the traditional model.

In fact, distance learning can provide “a more robust learning environment,” Mr. Madison said, “but it still requires a good design.”

E-learning, as it is now called, can open the walls of the classroom to a worldwide group of learners. A course in political science, philosophy, art or economics, for example, could include student blogs that interact with nonstudents. This public engagement using newly acquired skills and ideas is rarely possible in the traditional classroom. Yet some private space for students must be a component of e-learning, Mr. Madison said, where they can experiment and risk failing.

Obviously, the advent of the Internet changed everything, in both the traditional classroom and in distance learning settings. Thirty years ago, students were asked to make collages of magazine photos to demonstrate knowledge of a subject. Today, they can create a “mash up,” as it’s called, that joins Web maps and statistics showing, for example, the intersections in Bangor where the most car crashes have occurred. A decade ago only a program-savvy person could post a video on the Web. Now, anyone can do it.

Class discussions, a vital part of the college experience, might be thought to suffer in e-learning. Not so, Mr. Madison said. “You can have a much more intense experience.” If an instructor is communicating with students in a live chat, he can get to all the “raised hands,” and a student who wants to respond to a comment made five minutes earlier can still do so.

There are downsides. Administrators may be tempted to reduce instructional staff by recording a semester’s worth of lectures and playing them on the Web while students complete automatically graded quizzes. This must be resisted.

Maine is well-poised to benefit from e-learning, but it must be ready to act now.

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