Several myths seem to abound in the field of e-learning. Assumptions such as "all the students will be motivated by it", "the students will work autonomously with it", "it will increase flexibility and reduce cost" are just a few of the views taken for granted in some quarters (these were set out more fully in TES Online, October 12 2001, Debunking the Myths).
Assumptions cannot be made and certain things will not work in moving towards e-learning. But there is growing evidence from research in this field that certain strategies will work and will enhance teaching and learning - just as certain tactics and strategies do work in face-to-face pedagogy.* Some of these involve course and curriculum design. For example, it is clearly a big mistake to simply put traditional, paper-based materials online and hope that they work in a virtual environment. Course design for e-learning can and should build "e-activities" into the curriculum - as an integral part, not as an add-on. These activities, which would encourage active learning, participation and collaboration, will become a feature of the course; an expectation, not an added option.
Course design of this sort would lead to the creation of a community - bringing people together online with a purpose. This can be achieved by including five different elements:
* Structure l Activity l Tutor presence * Flexibility l A range of tools At the start of any online course or module it's a very good idea to be clear and explicit about the structure and timetable for teaching and learning, with a statement of expectations. Students (and tutors) may be anxious to begin with, and this is quickly alleviated if the structure, and what is expected of everyone, is very clear in advance. This structure needs to be available online for consultation.
It also needs to be reflected in the design of the online teaching space (virtual learning environment or VLE) being used. For example, you might start out with an activity in which participants introduce themselves, and say something about their background, or why they want to do the course. The point is to get people talking so that they feel comfortable in the electronic environment, get to know the other participants and begin to feel that the space in which they are working is friendly.
To encourage this the learning environment should have an easy-to-find forum, discussion area or space that is dedicated to this activity. It must be secure so that participants can feel that only they will read the postings. The sense of community that is so essential to online work will then begin to develop. After this introductory phase, as the community begins to establish, more demanding academic work can be undertaken.
It is also important to have a "social space" in the learning environment. This is a place where participants may just drop in and relax with others on the course. It might be that some explicit ground rules need to be established for this, and that will depend on the group involved. Again, this has implications for the design of the environment. The social space should have a friendly, informal name that suits the group. We have used the names of Sheffield pubs but, again, this will depend on the profile of the group.
The presence of the tutor is another important factor in helping an electronic learning community to become established. Ideally there should be plenty of tutor presence during the early part of an activity - say the first 10 days of a six-week module. During the middle phase the tutor might step back as the group becomes more confident, but still keep an eye on things.
Then, as the activity concludes, her presence will be required again to draw things together and ensure that everything is completed. Tutor dominance in a group will seriously reduce the participation of other student members. However, a lack of tutor presence, especially in the early phase of an activity, may lead to the failure of the learning community to become established.
A range of e-tools can be used to support e-learning. Discussion can be in real time (synchronous, commonly called "chat") or out of real time (asynchronous, as occurs in email and bulletin boards). Both have their place. Asynchronous discussion can be great for developing a set of ideas over weeks or months of a course - a dissertation for example. Decisions are more easily made in real-time chat.
These e-tools also provide facilities that wouldn't be available in a face-to-face situation. For example, in a real-time chat seminar the tutor can hold conversations with the whole group while simultaneously chatting to individuals in the group, supporting their difficulties and encouraging their participation. This can raise the overall level of participation, and the quality of dialogue in the group during a chat session.
Developing these aspects of learning and teaching so that e-learning is a success thus involves a mixture of course design issues and pedagogical issues. The two go together, just as they do in face-to-face teaching. Successful e-learning will involve a combination of group activities, structure, stimuli, cajoling by tutors and peers, and giving people a purpose or a reason to go online - this combination of "arm twisters" and "carrots" is exactly analogous to the strategies which are needed in more traditional teaching situations.
Vic Lally and Jerry Wellington both work in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield * See Lally, VE, amp; Barrett, E (1999), Building a Learning Community Online: Towards Socio-academic Interaction, Research Papers in Education, 14 (2), 147-163 and Barrett, E, amp; Lally, VE (1999). Gender Differences In An Online Learning Environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15,48-60