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DEEP BLUE – The stalwart ability to resist change

It never ceases to amuse me how people fight tooth and nail to preserve something they really never liked to begin with. They complain bitterly about the way their organization does something – until someone decides to change it; then they immediately fight to keep things the way they were.


April 30, 2012
By Dorothy Cotton

It never ceases to amuse me how people fight tooth and nail to preserve something they really never liked to begin with. They complain bitterly about the way their organization does something – until someone decides to change it; then they immediately fight to keep things the way they were.

Most of us have a stockpile of handy dandy bon mots like “but we have always done it this way,” “if it ain’t broke…” and (my personal favorite), “we tried that once and it didn’t work.”

If you would like to hear all those phrases muttered in rapid succession, try talking to someone over age 35 or so about the value of e-learning. There will immediately be a lot of hand wringing and dismay about how:

• people cannot possibly learn without the personal touch;

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• you gotta be in the same room;

• everyone will cheat;

• creativity will be lost;

• it’s the networking that counts;

• you can’t learn skills that way;

• there is no accountability;

• the weaker students will be screwed;

• it will be boring; and

• it will be impersonal.

Did I miss anything?

I actually think police people are a little ahead of the game with e-learning compared to many professions (say, psychologists for example). There is already a lot of police e-learning – CKPN’s phenomenal growth, for example – but just because everyone is doing it does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea – or even that people are buying the concept.

Saving money is generally the first thing on everyone’s agenda these days. You’d be hard pressed to convince anyone traditional teaching and learning formats are as affordable as e-learning, but are we throwing out the baby with the bath water here? Getting a cheaper product for less money – which is not necessarily a bargain? Do people actually LEARN anything when e-learning?

I have been educated up the wazoo, doing as much schooling as anyone can possibly do. I’ve run out of degrees to get and, as a regulated health care provider, have stringent requirements about continuing education. This means I have extensive experience with traditional educational formats. My observations are:

• there was never much of a personal touch; some of my university courses had hundreds of students and were on closed circuit television;

• we were in the same room but it was a pretty large lecture hall;

• lots of people cheated;

• creativity was pretty much drummed out of you – hard to be creative in a multiple choice exam;

• I networked with the people in my residence;

• we never learned skills;

• the weaker students were screwed;

• it was really boring; and

• it was very impersonal.

These may be overstatements (ahem). There are skills that do need to be taught and assessed in person. Some of the courses in the later years of my education were wonderful. Conference sessions sometimes really blow me away and make a significant impact on my practice. The fact is though, there has always been a lot of bad teaching out there. If e-learning can replace that, I am all in favor.

The research is pretty exciting. I read somewhere that technology represents the biggest advance in education since the chalkboard (mind you, I think they also said that about radio, TV, tape recorders, slide projectors… probably even chalk at one point).

Early studies suggested online training was about as effective as traditional classroom training but as technology and teaching methods developed, the research is telling us very interesting things. For example, more recent studies have suggested online learning is superior to classroom-based instruction in acquiring declarative knowledge (i.e. factual information).

Traditional and distance learning options are about equal in terms of procedural learning outcomes (i.e. how to perform a task). In general, online students often performed better than those receiving live, face-to-face instruction. Learners who engaged in a “blended training” format (i.e. including both online and face-to-face elements) showed significantly better learning outcomes than purely web-based learners or people taught entirely face-to-face.

The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. There is also evidence that online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media, building in learner reflection prompts and allowing learners to spend more time in training.

However, e-learning, like traditional learning, comes in good and bad forms. A series of boring Powerboats with a droning voice in the background is no better online than in person. Disinterested instructors can be live or online. Since e-learning is often developed by people who think playing with technology is a hot time, elaborate and complex media can overwhelm the student with too much input, thus causing them to run screaming from the room.

As the field of e-learning advances, it definitely does offer answers to some of the problems of traditional education. Flexible times for interactions between instructors and students (bulletin boards as opposed to synchronous online chats) seem to lead to more student creativity and initiative.

Hybrid classes where students and faculty meet in person first to get to know each other, then go away and do the rest of the work through technology, do very well. Judicious use of media leads to more learning and comprehension. Approachable faculty – whether in person or on line – are key.

I don’t purport to be an expert on e-learning and have never actually “taught” an on-line course. I also hate the thought of being denied those out of town trips to conferences and meetings to schmooze with my colleagues. I am hoping that in the big scheme of things, there will be room for both e-learning and the old fashioned kind of learning – but have to confess that it’s getting increasingly tough to maintain the belief that the old way is the best way.

Will e-learning ever replace traditional learning? Should it? At the end of the day, people learn how people learn. We will learn best from human contact with people we respect and admire and when information is presented in an understandable form, in digestible chunks, at speeds we can control, at a level we understand.

We learn best when we see the relevance and are interested and motivated. If e-learning does those things better than some guy standing at the front of a room nattering away, then it will be successful.

Chalk also works.