eLearning: Is It New?

By Sean Gordon

eLearning is a trendy new word, but does it represent anything fundamentally different? In 1958, behaviorist psychologist, BF Skinner published an article in Science [1958, 128, 3330] entitled “Teaching Machines: from the experimental study of learning devices which arrange optimal conditions for self-instruction.” In the article, Skinner says his basic design for a teaching machine was based on a mechanical device invented by Sidney J. Pressey in the 1920s.

The Foundations:

Skinner’s teaching machines presented students with questions that had multiple choice answer options. The machines “reinforced” or rewarded correct answers by moving on the next question and didn’t reinforce incorrect answers by remaining on the question and awaiting second or third responses. Was this teaching machine an early, mechanical, simplistic version of eLearning? The model for eLearning continues to follow “behaviorist” theory. Most eLearning designers have adopted “Gagne’s 9 events of instruction” model. Advocates maintain that this learning method is a cost-effective way to deliver online courses to learners worldwide. They say that eLearning is self-paced and easily transmissible via the internet.

The Methods:

Clearly, the computer, with its advanced imaging capability and the ability to transmit audio and video content is far better for behaviorist model education and training than the ancient teaching machine, but the philosophy of education and the structure of the teaching are very much the same. The idea of the eLearner, according to Gagne, is a completely passive person, with no particular curiosity, individual interest, or point of view. Gagne’s “9 events of instruction” are:

  1. Gaining the learner’s attention. The system asks questions so that the learner gets ready to think and respond. Storytelling can help learners relate to the scenario. Interactive videos can be incorporated here. Uncertain situations and surprises can “stimulate learners.”
  2. Informing the learner of the objectivesThe performance of students and the required performance parameters are explained.
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning. Students are questioned and quizzed about what they already know.
  4. Presenting the learning stimulus. Deliver what has to be learned in the form of narratives in “chunk form” considered easy to understand. Use “gamification” where students earn points, badges, and the like for correct performance. Learning content can be delivered in a variety of forms.
  5. Providing learning guidance. Deliver guides on how to learn using “scaffolds”, analogies, case studies and the like.
  6. Eliciting appropriate performance. Provide practice exercises.
  7. Providing feedback. Tell learners how they are doing in terms of correct and incorrect scores
  8. Assessing learner performance. Include tests and quizzes to assess performance.
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer. Follow-up learning with information in audio and video clips, checklists to sustain learning.

eLearning and Internet Use:

eLearning is not simply learning online, although learning online is certainly confabulated in with the idea of eLearning. There are many advantages of online education. There are nearly unlimited sources of information and understanding that can found through internet sources, for anyone. eLearning is specifically based on a behaviorist, stimulus-response model of learning that evolved out a particular psychological orientation that became popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Studies have demonstrated that many educators generally approve of eLearning, not as a form of primary teaching, but as a supplementary teaching method to reinforce coursework. Studies that suggest unbridled positive attitudes toward eLearning as a stand-alone process of education have sampled people in impoverished education environments where the convenience and economy of eLearning are its primary virtue [e.g., “Attitude of Students Towards E-Learning in South-West Nigerian Universities”-DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska, Lincoln].

eLearning is very practical for quick summaries of facts. It lacks the experiential component for skill development. eLearning is also subject neutral. You can teach people who have no inherent interest. It is not the pursuit of learning to answer questions or satisfy curiosity. No intrinsic motivation is required or even wanted.

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