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April 12, 2007

e-Learning 2.0 - The End of the Course?

Will blogs, wikis, Web search and other implements of informal learning replace the instructional designer, the teaching faculty, and the very concept of an academic course?

Tony Karrer of TechEmpower spoke at a session of Harvard Business School's BrainGain instructional technology speaker series yesterday about the impact that these technologies are having on transforming corporate training, and to some extent traditional education.  When can a collaborative wiki take the place of traditional course materials to facilitate learning in an organization?  How do blogs extract value from personal communication in ways that email does not?  Tony's recent blog entries  eLearning Business Alternatives, Disruptive Changes in Learning and Content Vendor Value address these trends.

I'm a strong believer in the unmatched information-gathering capability Web tools give learners.  The growth of Web 2.0 technologies serves to multiply the effect, with mashups, add-ins and simple cross-publishing of content from one site to another providing the free-form platform that allows end users to create new value in the ecosystem.   Online reference resources created by user communities can be more effective means of compiling and distributing the right information in the right-sized chunks. 

But I'm not a believer that all of this is always going to be an effective substitute for an educational curriculum.  Education is more than skills training.  It's challenging the way students think. It's walking them down a path that builds on basics, builds a knowledge base that grows eventually to become more than the sum of its parts.  It's providing a context that helps motivate and direct the learners' efforts.  If information were the same as education, we could plop a set of Web resources and books in front of first-year college kids and say "Have at it! Become chemists!" and they'd do it on their own.  (Actually a very few students could probably pull this off, due to their intrinsic motivation, ability, and interest in the topic.)  In real life, people often need teachers, coaches, trainers, and leaders to help them deliver their best.  

At their worst, courses can be boring, irrelevant, or wrongly-paced for their students.  At their best, they are highly motivating, are transformational experiences that give the learner an entirely new context for how to think about a problem, and provide a framework of basic knowledge that serves as a solid foundation for future learning (formal or informal).

Alternatively, collaborative E-Learning 2.0 resources at their worst can be random piles of facts (of unknown accuracy), filtered by groupthink and presented with limited context.  At their best, they are the collective, first-hand knowledge of countless experts, organized and interlinked in a way that creates rich context that no instructional designer could have imagined (let alone implemented).  

I'm thinking, there's going to continue to be room for both for a long time.  Tony's blog post mentions Valerie Bock, whose assessment I agree with:
Subscribing to RSS feeds, tags and searches is a great way for an individual to keep abreast of what’s happening in her field. Contributing to communities of practice is a terrific way to pass on hard-won expertise. It’s all good.

But it’s not sufficient. In the frantic, multi-tasking environments in which we all work, there is perhaps a more urgent need than ever for content which is the product of careful reflection about just what is essential, and how it fits into an overall framework.

We think the future of learning is in the engagement of learners with each other, and with skilled facilitators, around that content.

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