A transdisciplinary approach of Elearning and its implications

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The learning process is in a constant evolution, in accordance to the demands of the society and the advancement of technologies. The development of e-learning constitutes a challenge for numerous educational institutions. The aim of this paper is to present the advantages of using a transdisciplinary approach of e-learning in order to: (a) obtain authentic person-focused learning experiences and (b) overcome e-learning process challenges. From a transdisciplinary perspective, an authentic understanding involves both external knowledge and internal experiences. A transdisciplinary approach of e-learning might help in designing durable and adequate strategies and tools to support an integrative human development.

© 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: e-learning, transdisciplinarity, knowledge, learner, empowerment, lecturer

1. Introduction

The development of technology promotes its use in almost any field of human activity. Therefore it is not surprising that technology is getting to be more and more used in education. There is strong encouragement to use information and communication technologies for learning purposes in universities, especially to support lifelong learning (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007; Fee, 2009; Kidd, 2010; Lehmann & Chamberlin, 2009).

Initially, the development of e-learning relied on the promise of economical advantages and access opportunities for: (a) working and travelling students; (b) students situated anywhere on the globe and (c) students who had difficulties in attending traditional classes (Bitzer, Lichtenberger, & Braunfeld, 1962; Suppes, 1986). Consequently, e-learning became a part of almost every program in the strategic development of universities (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007).

For the past four decades, academic and business education employed computers to support and enhance teaching and learning (Kidd, 2010). Along with the implementation of information and communication technologies in educational settings, definitions of e-learning were elaborated and several theories and studies regarding e-learning were developed. Different definitions of e-learning emerged, most of them reflecting particular agendas (Fee, 2009; Morrison, 2003). The European Union defines e-learning emphasizing the use of information and communication technologies in "all learning systems and environments (formal, non-formal, informal - school, higher and adult education and training)" (Fee, 2009, p. 14). The American Society for Training and Development considers that e-learning includes every use of electronic technology „for the explicit purpose of learning" (Fee, 2009, p. 15). Morrison (2004) defines e-learning as being "the continuous assimilation of knowledge and skills by adults stimulated by synchronous and asynchronous learning events" (Morrison, 2003, p. 4). Although these definitions point out different aspects of e-learning, some common aspects can be identified, and more concise definition can be formulated in order to capture the essential elements. E-learning is in fact "an approach to learning and development: a collection of learning methods using digital technologies, which enable, distribute, and enhance learning." (Fee, 2009, p. 16).

The extensive use of technology in the educational field and the encouragement to use information and communication technologies for learning purposes had a powerful impact on learning processes. Thus, learning practices change, requiring a change from the learner and the lecturer as well. Although e-learning as a new way of learning has many advantages, there are still many controversial issues regarding the implementation of e-learning and its efficiency from educational and economical point of view (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007). Hence, the present article focuses on challenges and limitations of e-learning, in order to set the stage for possible contributions of a transdisciplinary perspective for an authentic and efficient e-learning experience for all the actors involved.

2. Challenges of e-learning

2.1. E-learning and the necessity for a new model of learning

The use of information and communication technologies in academic or economic learning imposes a change of the entire educational process. The technologies used require a certain level of learner and lecturer digital literacy. As Fee (2009) observes, we can identify two categories of persons involved in e-learning nowadays: digital immigrants who lived a great part of their lives without using computers and Internet, and digital natives who grew up using sophisticated technologies. They differ greatly with respect to the flexibility and ease with which each use technology for learning purposes. Ever since the beginning of mankind there has been some kind of learning going on and learning changed with every age of human development or technological discovery. Some milestones in the development of learning were: the foundation of Plato's Academy, the development of first European universities, the development of printing, the educational broadcasting via radio and television, and the development of personal computers and internet (Fee, 2009). Each one of these milestones had a significant impact on the learning process and the models of learning it was based upon.

Several models were formulated about e-learning, emphasizing its particularities and differences compared to traditional learning and adult learning. Most models refer to the three major components: technology, content, and learning design (Morrison, 2003). Referring to the usage of Web-based technologies and the synchronicity of communication, Fee (2009) identifies five models of e-learning: (1) online courses, provided exclusively via Internet; (2) integrated online and offline learning, that combine online activities with offline learning; (3) self-managed e-learning, where online materials are provided for the purpose of self-managed learning to take place; (4) live e-learning, referring to online synchronous communication also called webinars (Fee, 2009); and (5) electronic performance support, "work-based online learning to support specific tasks, systems or operational procedures" (Fee, 2009, p. 23).

Tomei (2010) reviews learning models for traditional learning (pedagogy), adult learning (andragogy), and e-learning (allagegoggy - "teaching to transform") offering an insightful and useful perspective. The elements of the "engine for designing online education in support for lifelong learning" (Tomei, 2010, p. 33) refer to: focus on the learner, principle of learning used, instructional resources, delivery methods and learning outcomes.

As the principle of allagegogy is teaching to transform (Tomei, 2010), e-learning focuses on the learner and his motives, responsibility, and self discipline. Although e-learning is gaining in popularity and use, some authors consider that "online learning is not for everyone" (Parker, 2010, p. 7). Successful online learning requires the learner to have certain characteristics such as: "the ability to work independently or in a group, complete assignments and readings with minimal supervision, write in a clear and articulated manner, manage time, learn using different delivery formats, and work with technology tools" (Tomei, 2010, p. 35).

E-learning involves a gradual development of the learner's skills, abilities, and competencies, as in the case of traditional learning and adult learning. Nevertheless, the taxonomies and the objectives of each one differ as follows. The taxonomy of educational objectives for traditional learner, developed by Bloom include: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Tomei, 2010). In adult learning the focus is on practice and application of knowledge. Hence the taxonomy differs, including knowledge at a first level, application at a second level and research, practice and evaluation at a third level. As e-learning is based on technology, the first requirement for learning is "digital literacy", meaning the mastery of the utilized technology. Communication skills are another important factor in e-learning, whether they relate to Internet communication or communication through written papers. Decision-making skills, infusion of technologies, integration of new technologies, and the use of technology-based learning materials are other essential elements in e-learning (Tomei, 2010).

The mastery of technology is a requirement both for the learner and the lecturer. While the former is supposed to have the ability to use a wide range of learning materials, especially digital materials, the latter needs to be able to design these materials appropriately for the online learner. Assessment might constitute another provocation for the online learner and lecturer.

Considering all these particularities of e-learning, Tomei (2010) concludes that for best results, e-learning should be: learner-focused, theory-based, and resource-reach. Unfortunately, the implementation of e-learning in academic setting is confronted with some difficulties concerning the learner, the lecturer, and the evaluation of e-learning efficiency, some of which will be described below.

2.2. Barriers to overcome in e-learning

Usage of information and communication influences the entire educational process. As learning context, resources, and methods change, a change is required at all levels, from the learner and lecturer, to assessment methods, and principles of learning. Although e-learning is widely used, there are still few studies and models to evaluate e-learning efficiency or to compare e-learning to traditional learning (Lewis & Chen, 2010). Recent studies emphasize the fact that e-learning is far from being used at its best potential in academic setting (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007), as "technology development tends to outpace strategic thinking and pedagogical design in universities" (Schneckenberg, 2010, p. 980). Hence, two important barriers are related to the lecturer and the learner.

Most attempts to integrate e-learning in universities focus on technology and the use of technology to enhance learning. There is a more limited focus on the skills staff and students must have to use information and communication technologies for learning purposes. As Tomei (2010) states, the first level of competencies necessary for e-learning to take place is the mastery of technology, a "digital literacy", or the eCompetence as it is referred to by Schneckenberg (2010). Unfortunately, there is a lack of such skills of both students and staff, accompanied by a resistance to change (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007).

We believe that the difficulties that impede effective e-learning are mainly related to: (a) reduced understanding of the important role the learner has in e-learning and (b) limitations in the training of faculty staff for using information and communication technologies in education.

3. Possible contributions of a transdisciplinary perspective on e-learning

Transdisciplinarity is a new methodology and a new perspective on human being, knowledge and the world, complementary to the disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary perspectives (FlueraÅŸ, 2010; Nicolescu, 1999). Transdisciplinarity emerged from the need to move to a new stage of knowledge, in which Reality needs to be redefined and the unit of knowledge becomes an imperative (Nicolescu, 1999, 2010). A new Reality takes shape, one that is multidimensional, based on the existence of multiple levels of Reality of the Object, and multireferential, based on the existence of multiple levels of Reality of the Subject. The structure of the Reality is a ternary one and assumes a dynamic relationship between the Subject, the Object, and the Hidden Third (Nicolescu, 1999, 2006, 2010).

A new principle of relativity arises, a principle which posits that there is no privileged or fundamental level of Reality. Each level of Reality is what it is because all other levels coexist at the same time (Nicolescu, 1999, 2006, 2010). We could affirm that transdisciplinarity follows a natural evolution of human understanding, which reached the point where an integrative perspective of outer and inner world is needed. Although a transdisciplinary perspective on e-learning could bring many benefits and insights for a sustainable education, we will focus here on two aspects: (a) the complexity of e-learning and (b) the authentic experience of learning from a transdisciplinary perspective on knowledge.

One of the axioms of the transdisciplinary methodology refers to complexity in the sense that "every level of reality is what it is because it's connected with all the other levels of reality" (Volckmann, 2007, p. 82). From a transdisciplinary perspective, e-learning is a complex phenomenon, whether we analyze it from the point of view of the learner, the lecturer, the topic learned, the technology, the methods, or the learning design. All these aspects are interrelated, as a difference at any level will lead to different results; a missing piece in the model will lead to a misunderstanding. Therefore, when e-learning classes and resources are designed, an investigation of the multidimensional and multireferential character of the phenomenon needs to be considered.

Probably the most important contribution of transdisciplinarity to e-learning concerns the transdisciplinary perspective on knowledge and understanding. An authentic learning experience means understanding and it is in accordance with the main principle of e-learning: teaching to transform. From a transdisciplinary perspective, understanding connects knowledge and being (Volckmann, 2007). Since genuine understanding means unifying external knowledge with personal internal experiences, a new perspective on knowledge is required. Namely, one that is focused on the learner experiences, including: motivations, self discipline, reflection on the learned topics, practical experiences with the learned topics. Also, we must include the exploration of a topic at some, if not all the levels of being of the Subject (physical, psychological, and spiritual level). Therefore, the educational staff implementing e-learning needs to consider the development of materials and interactions that will help the learner to: (a) acquire self-organizing and learning-management skills, and (b) integrate transmitted knowledge and personal experiences.

The lecturer, as faculty staff, uses information and communication technologies to enhance learning. Hence, he needs to learn to master digital and web resources, and the best and authentic way to learn these skills is through e-learning. In this manner the lecturer experiences what e-learning means from the perspective of the learner. Through his learning design knowledge, he can develop e-learning resources, and can efficiently use technology to enhance learning results. This idea is in accordance both with the transdisciplinary perspective on knowledge and the suggestions of authors like Donnelly & O'Rourke (2007). They strongly advocate against training academic staff "in the form of short courses and delivered in traditional face-to-face mode" (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007, p. 35).

4. Conclusions

Information and communication technologies are becoming widely used in academic and economical settings for educational purposes, to enhance learning in a wide range of students. Although a lot of work remains to be done regarding the assessment of e-learning efficiency (Donnelly & O'Rourke, 2007; Lewis & Chen, 2010; Schneckenberg, 2010), new models of educational design have been developed, emphasizing differences between e-learning and traditional learning, and defining the characteristics of an e-learner (Parker, 2010). In order to optimize the impact of using information and communication technologies for learning some barriers need to be overcome. They are related to the resistance of faculty staff in appropriately using technology in e-learning and the difficulties concerning an adequate understanding of the central role of the learner.

The complexity of e-learning process is brought forward from a transdisciplinary perspective. We need to take into account the intricate context where e-learning takes place and the multiple factors to consider. Any reductionist approach could lead to an erroneous image, hence to an erroneous model of intervention and assessment.

Another aspect to consider is an authentic and efficient learning experience. From a transdisciplinary point of view, an authentic understanding involves both external knowledge and internal experiences. E-learning is based on the empowerment of the learner, the motivation of a person to engage in individual web-based and computer-based learning activities. On the one hand, successful individual outcomes of e-learning are highly related to the learner's involvement and responsibility. In this context, the emphasis should be both on knowledge and personal experiences. On the other hand, the development of appropriate learning designs and resources by the lecturers depends on their direct e-learning experiences, requiring new ways of training faculty to use e-learning.

To conclude, in a new millennium characterized by globalization, interactivity, and a multiplicity of sources, views, and goals, a transdisciplinary approach of e-learning might help in designing durable and adequate strategies and tools to support an integrative human development.


This article was supported by CNCSIS-UEFISCSU, project number PN II-RU 412/2010, grant direct Oana Negru.