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The term Electronic-Technology (Also referred to Information Communication Technology) or E-Technology originates from the fact that most of these technologies are electronically facilitated. E-Technology has become a commonplace entity in all aspects of life (Carr, 2003). Across the past twenty years the use of E-Technology has fundamentally changed the practices and procedures of nearly all forms of endeavour within business and governance (Oliver, 2002). Every organisation is looking to use the numerous advantages offered by these new evolving technologies and enhance their organisational prospects, be it business houses (E-commerce), banks (E-banking), educational institutions (E-learning, E-Training) etc. For the purpose of this report we will concentrate on the educational use of E-technology in the form of E-Learning.
People have always had a need to learn from people who aren’t in their immediate vicinity (Dede, 1995). In the early days, for example, guilds provided opportunities to be trained by skillful teachers and learn from experts. People traveled great distances to learn from the best. Today’s technologies allow us to do similar sharing but at a distance. Early models of such learning were known as correspondence study and were text-based because books and paper were the technology that was available at the time. As technologies change and expand, the options for learning expand with them. Because of the ongoing technological evolution and progress, it can and will be harnessed for learning. These new technologies that can be used for learning purposes are collectively better know as E-Learning technologies.
There seems to be no agreement on a unified view on the definition of e-learning as per the literature. The author of this report will use the definition of e-learning as proposed by NCSA:
“E-learning is the acquisition and use of knowledge distributed and facilitated primarily by electronic means. This form of learning currently depends on networks and computers but will likely evolve into systems consisting of a variety of channels (e.g., wireless, satellite), and technologies (e.g., cellular phones, PDA’s) as they are developed and adopted. E-learning can take the form of courses as well as modules and smaller learning objects. E-learning may incorporate synchronous or asynchronous access and may be distributed geographically with varied limits of time.” (NCSA, 2000)
A growing body of research supports that E-learning technologies, if appropriately used in the classroom, may allow students to create knowledge in a creative way by giving them opportunities to explore, interact, problem solve, and collaborate (Clarkson et al, 1999). Kirschner and Selinger (2003. p.6) elaborates by mentioning that these technologies offer the potential to: meet the learning needs of individual students; to promote equality of opportunity; to offer high-quality learning materials; and to increase self-efficacy and independence of learning amongst students of all ages. In the U.K., the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) now known as Department for Education and Skills (DfES), believes that ICT can provide new levels of learning support and mentioned that: “We believe the ambitious and imaginative use of technology will be a central element in improving personalisation and choice across the system” (DfES, 2004, p.88). Some of the widely used applications of E-Technology in the form E-Learning in an educational setting are given below.
Data – logging and Graphing: In data-logging activities, learners need only to make decisions about what parameter to measure, in a suitably designed experiment, and to select the appropriate sensor, to be able to record high-quality data. Barton’s (1997) comparative study of graphing using computer and non-computer methods has highlighted the flexibility afforded by the computer approach. Real-time plotting has time advantages over manual methods, in particular in encouraging pupils to focus on trends and patterns rather than individual data items. Spreadsheets and other types of software that provide graphing facilities enable pupils to explore the presentation of data in different graphical forms, and to look for trends and patterns in data.
Obtaining and transmitting knowledge: The facility of computers to archive large quantities of information and to permit its ready retrieval was of potential educational benefit for conveying knowledge. Software that is designed to exploit these properties includes multimedia resources such as CD-ROM (O’Bannon, 1997) and web-based materials accessed through internet ‘browsers’ .
Presenting and reporting: The presentational tools provided by word processing, desktop publishing, web-based and other specialized presentation software offer pupils powerful tools for presenting and sharing their ideas with others. As well as deciding what information they may wish to report, pupils can decide on styles and formats for presenting their ideas. This allows for a degree of creativity and exploration in the search for the most appropriate and effective format. We believe that the creative processes involved in producing reports and presentations help pupils to develop and secure their understanding of science.
E-learning technologies are available in a variety of types and forms. Electronic learning has existed before the Internet came into existence. It was known as computer-based training (CBT), where training materials, some were even interactive, were stored in floppy disks and later in CD-ROMs (Schittek et al, 2001). The CD-ROM version still exists today. The current Web-based form of E-learning is merely an enhanced version, capitalising on the latest computer technologies to incorporate the capability of multimedia and global accessibility of the Web. The technologies could include hardware (e.g. computers and other devices); software applications; and connectivity (e.g. access to the internet, local networking infrastructure and video conferencing) (Toomey, 2001). The capacity of these new technologies to support learning in a creative way through experience of simulations, problem solving, investigating and handling information is considerable.
With E-Learning, there is opportunity for high level interaction among students, the lecturers and the computer-mediated material. Teaching is flexible because as it can be conducted synchronously or asynchronously, contact is dynamic and can be as variable as the student or the lecturer desires and communication can take place through a variety of modes, such as email, chat, bulletin boards, etc all facilitated by the computer this can be viewed as distributed learning.
It is general knowledge that the most widely used of the E-learning tools in the education sector is electronic communication tool (Email). Academic teaching staffs are making themselves available for 24 through the use of email and bulletin boards. Bates (2000) notes that the use of electronic communication for most lecturers actually increases their contact with students, which can be very beneficial for the students. Lecture notes and other teaching resources are placed on the internet for students to access, and linking useful web sites to these resources enables students to navigate through relevant resources. Academic staff also employs published classroom resources that are directly linked to the internet. Learning or Course management systems are used to create an online environment which houses a multitude of resources – such as course outlines, listed resources, internal email, bulletin boards, discussion forums, synchronous communication and so on. Presentation software’s (PowerPoint etc) are also being widely used to enhance classroom teaching. Compared to preparing a “Chalk and talk” lecture, the preparation of appropriate presentation software requires more time although it may save time in comparison to preparation of detailed overhead transparencies.
However, if one has to concur on a single technology that has resulted in the exponential growth of E-learning, it has to be the internet.
The World Wide Web has made it possible for people to access primary sources of information on demand. Mastery of this tool has become essential in order to gain access to an ever-growing body of recent and up-to-date knowledge available electronically. The rate of job change has also caused a rethinking of the skills required for lifelong learning, such as skilful use of ICT. The potential is there for these new technologies to attract a more competitive market, thus making the institution a more financial and viable entity (Bates, 2000).
Government along with Industry leaders have identified the potential of E-Learning and this is clearly evident from the amount of investment made governments and the companies. For example the UK government has, “Programmes to invest an additional £81m over three years awarded from HEFCE and HEFCW have been earmarked to support central objectives of the DfES’s E-strategy, the Science and Innovation Investment Framework: 2004 – 2014, and ‘Reaching Higher’, the Welsh Assembly Government’s strategy for the higher education sector” (JISC, 2006). The following figure shows the amount that has been set aside for E-learning which is an around 20% increase from the previous investment.
The industry is not left far behind either. Organisations view learning increasingly as a competitive advantage rather than just another cost factor (Urdan & Weggen, 2000). The industry is to a greater extent divided in two major groups. One that provides centralised learning management systems (LMS) with the most commonly used applications and the other group of companies are the ones who provide bespoke E-learning systems as per the requirements of their clients. The ability to sustain and compete in this growingly competitive market is evident from the increasing number of mergers that we have seen in the past few years especially in the LMS sector. The following table shows a recent market state after the mergers and comprise of the big players in the LMS or E-learning sector.
Even though the bespoke E-learning market is growing every day the companies are not as big as the LMS vendors. However, this is a positive sign and it enables small sized organisations to integrate affordable E-Learning solution into their business provided by these companies rather then the ones provided by the LMS vendors which are hugely expensive.
Commercial and social impact
There is absolutely no doubt that these E-Learning technologies are having a massive impact at commercial as well as social level. Some of them are mentioned below:
Online Social Communities – The asynchronous and synchronous communication ability of E-Learning systems has enabled institutions to cater for a variety of users by removing the barriers of time and distance. Users who are normally geographically disadvantaged have access to a variety of educational resources not usually at their disposal (Bates, 2000). This, in a way has lead to the evolution of online social networks (‘Myspace’, ‘second life’ etc). These networks are having an enormous social impact on the society in a positive way to a greater extent. Social networks are playing a instrumental role in learning environments as a major conduit of resource and knowledge exchanges (Cho, Stefanone, & Gay, 2002) and as a source of social support and socialisation for distributed learners (Haythornthwaite, 2002). There are abundant discussions emphasising the value and the impact of social networks in the studies of organisational learning (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998), knowledge management (Cohen & Prusak, 2001), and distance learning (Haythornthwaite, 2002).
Pedagogical Improvement and staff renewal – Teaching staff are able to preset information using a variety of tools in order to better relate to the content to the concrete realities of a given field of study. Innovative hands-on learning experiences are also made possible for students through computer simulation software. Asynchronous communication technologies are used outside the classroom to enrich classroom learning through discussion groups, mentoring and coaching (Burg & Thomas, 1998). The challenge of teaching with ICT has led to revitalizing teaching practice for academic staff (Bates, 2000).
Cost-effectiveness – According to Chute, Thompson and Hancock (1999) the potential financial savings associated with E-learning can be significant when compared to traditional methods. E-Learning can improve the cost-effectiveness of the operation of educational institutions in variety of ways. One way is by the ability to reach different students and in greater numbers. Academic teaching staff can be freed from many routine activities by replacing certain activities with appropriate technology (Deden & Carter, 1996). Leading firms such as CISCO, Motorola, IBM and Ford are already reaping benefits associated with E-learning with some of them having cutting costs in the range of a whooping 30 to 50 percent (Greengard, 1999).
Although the growth of E-Learning is considerable there are those who are sceptical about its potential. Cuban (2001) argues that although governments are spending substantial sums of money to develop and implement educational policy to fund E-learning; research reveals that these new technologies are often oversold and underused (Cuban 2001, cited in Kirschner and Wopereis 2003). Also, with respect to E-Learning being a driving force behind educational innovation and reform, research indicates that ‘the role of E-Learning is not as profound as one would expect” (Kirschner and Wopereis 2003, p. 107). This may be because ‘ICT is too often used as a modern and efficient substitute for existing learning and teaching materials and seldom as a vehicle for innovation and transformation of education’ (Kirschner et al 1995, cited in Kirschner and Wopereis 2003, p. 107). This has prompted the government to shift its attention from technology to pedagogy as shown below.
Whether or not someone is keen on using technology for learning, the fact is that it’s here to stay. Technology has become an essential way to handle the education, training, and retraining needs of an expanding knowledge society. According to a recent report on job skills, 50 percent of all employee skills become outdated in three to five years. In addition, experts say the percentage of jobs that fit into the category of “knowledge workers” is rapidly increasing (Moe & Blodgett, 2000). Even jobs that were traditionally thought to require fewer skills, such as retail sales, now commonly require computer skills and the ability to keep pace with product changes. Many blue-collar workers regularly use computers and databases in their work. We simply don’t have the capacity to support today’s educational and training needs by using traditional methods alone.
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