The Rise and Fall of ‘E’

In 1998, the American Dialect Society – which, each year, votes for the most successful words of the year – selected not a word but merely the letter ‘e’ as its winner. In its members’ opinion, the prefix ‘e’ – meaning electronic rather than a speech mannerism favoured by many in the north of England – was the word of the year.
The latter years of the 1990s saw the proliferation of all things ‘e’. There was email, e-books, e-voting, e-loans, e-newsletters, e-shopping or, in a cleverer turn of phrase, ‘e-tailing’. Of course, learning was also high on the list of words that attracted the ‘e’ prefix.
Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that usage did not equate to popularity. We had barely staggered into the 21st century before there were increasing calls to stop adding an ‘e’ to existing words.
Arguably, only email and, perhaps, the neologism, ‘ezine’, have made it into common parlance at the end of this first decade of the 21st century.
Still hanging on, though, is ‘e-learning’. Once a word denoting the ‘leading edge’ application of learning delivery technologies and the latest thinking in instructional design, this ageing nomenclature of a bygone era has become synonymous – to the proverbial ‘man in the street’ rather than e-learning’s apologists – with the presentation of information in an uninspiring and rather pedestrian way.
For years, various studies have shown that less than ten per cent of those who start an e-learning programme ever complete it. E-learning’s apologists have been quick to say that this means that the learners have learnt what they needed to learn before the end of the programme and this testifies to e-learning’s flexibility and ability to provide just enough information at the right time.
E-learning’s apologists may be convinced but the rest of the world’s population is not.
In recent times – thanks to advances in learning delivery technologies – e-learning, which was prescriptive and characterised by the authoring of ‘traditional’ education contents online has given way to self-generated (via rapid authoring tolls in the hands of subject matter experts at the expense of professional instructional designers), grass roots learning content production, profiling and exchange, leading to the emergence of ‘learning communities’.
Current delivery technology developments suggest that, before too long, e-learning can become personal, using constructive pedagogy and delivering individualised contents. This will be characterised by de-structured content, tagged using XML to make it available via mobile devices.
Traditionally, learning has been either a formal activity (one of the main results of teaching) or an informal activity (one of the contributors to, and results of, experience). E-learning can be associated with either of these activities but, historically – if only because of its tie-up with Applied Technology Degree Usm learning management systems (in the corporate world) and virtual learning environments (in the education sector) – it has been more identified with formal learning. This is especially true in the education sector – where e-learning has a higher profile than it has in the corporate sector.
Yet, although epitomised by the self-paced online ‘course’, its apologists and promoters claim that e-learning now encompasses, among other things, mobile learning, simulations, 3D learning environments, performance support systems, knowledge management, informal media and social learning. However, can what is being delivered via these various environments be homogenous enough for all of it to be called e-learning without producing some confusion, especially in the minds of the buying/learning community, about what is being talked about?
The good news for e-learning designers, developers and deliverers is that, in its now traditional form of the self-paced, online-accessed course/ programme/ learning materials, e-learning is here to stay. It may be being produced in-house by subject mater experts who are more concerned with taking a ‘knowledge dump’ rather than developing a finely constructed piece of learning – and so the enduring quality of this e-learning’s underpinning instructional design could be called into question. Nonetheless, what is being called ‘e-learning 1.0’ is going to be with us as long as there are desktops, laptops, CDs and the internet.
The not-so-good news is that this e-learning is no longer ‘leading edge’. It is no longer exciting and state-of-the-art. It is the stuff of the honest HR artisan, not the leading learning technologist.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an honest artisan. In many ways, the business world needs its average artisans more than it needs its high fliers because they, at least, make invaluable contributions to business continuity. These average artisans will remain, solid and loyal, long after the high flier has flown. By contrast, high fliers tend to make invaluable contributions to themselves first, and then to the business.
Meanwhile, those at the leading edge of learning technologies are not necessarily the learning technologists of the past 15 years. They are more likely to have a background in the ‘digital industries’ – perhaps computer games, website design, search engine Online Teaching Tools Whiteboard optimisation and social media development. These are the people who will give the world the personalised, individualised, contextualised, self-development, performance support materials which can be delivered to the recipient on any convenient device.
These recipients are unlikely to be learners – or even e-learners – in the accepted sense of someone who wants to learn something. The key learning that they will have done is to learn where and how they can access the information that they need as and when they need it.
In this information age, learning is not about acquiring and remembering knowledge but, rather, it is about the skill of knowing where and how to access that knowledge as it becomes appropriate. So, it’s not ‘learning’ in the way that we have traditionally thought of learning, be it ‘e’ or otherwise.
Or maybe learning/ e-learning are still what we always thought they were but the state-of-the-art information delivery technologies are going to be delivering something that’s significantly different. For a start, the new personalised, individualised, contextualised (and so on) materials are going to be too brief or immediate to have a ‘learning structure’ to them. Nor are they going to build in ‘tests of learning retention’ (whatever use we may think these have) to the information they impart.
Either way – whether there is still such a thing as e-learning, or what we might be tempted to call e-learning isn’t really e-learning – e-learning is not what it was. In that case, maybe we should bow to public pressure and find another name for it and consign another ‘e’ word of the ’90s to oblivion.
By Bob Little

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