Bates & Sangrà propose five key reasons for using e-learning in higher education:
- To enhance the quality of teaching & learning;
- To accommodate to the learning style of Millennials;
- To increase access to learning opportunities and to increase flexibility for students;
- To develop the skill and competencies needed in the 21st Century;
- To Improve cost-effectiveness.
Critique of Reasons for Using E-Learning
While it is important to have a clear and well-supported rationale for using e-learning, it is equally important that we critically examine the most commonly proposed reasons which Bates & Sangrà discuss in Chapter 1 of their book. Improving access and flexibility, and enhancing quality are the least contentious of the five reasons they put forward and I have no problem with these. There is little doubt, in my view, that we can make education more accessible through the use of e-learning by reducing or eliminating the need for real-time attendance at schools and colleges. This makes it easier for people who are working full-time or who live in remote locations to pursue an education. As for enhancing the quality of education, Bates & Sangrà make a strong case for how e-learning can do this and I agree with them. They also make the point that we need to go beyond simply enhancing and move towards transforming and I think this is a key point. It also relates to the cost-effectiveness rationale. As Bates & Sangrà point out, if all we do is add technology to existing approaches, we may well enhance quality but we will also be increasing costs. The only way to achieve cost effectiveness is if we change our approaches and use e-learning to replace current activities and the only way to transform teaching and learning is to use e-learning to move away from a teacher-centered, transmission model of education.
The two reasons put forward by Bates & Sangrà that I think we need to take a critical look at are the ones that deal with millennial learning styles and 21st century skills.
The Millennials Learning Style Argument
This is the weakest argument put forward by Bates & Sangrà and really shouldn’t even be included in their discussion of reasons. As they correctly point out, there is no empirical support for the argument that Millennial students have inherently different needs or learning styles than other students. In fact, the whole notion of learning styles itself is empirically weak. That really should be end of the discussion but it isn’t and by devoting as much space to this proposition as they do, they end up giving it a certain amount of undeserved legitimacy.
In fact, there is no credible evidence to support the argument that there is a generational basis for using e-learning. We should be making decisions based on the needs of the learners we have in our class, not a stereotype. Watch this short video for a summary of the key reasons we should be skeptical of this argument.
If you need more convincing, see the following:
- Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue
- The Myths of the Digital Native and the Multitasker
- Net Gen Skeptic
- Digital Learners in Higher Education
The 21st Century Skills Argument
Bates & Sangra talk about the growth of knowledge-based companies and how these differ from typical industrial businesses and require workers with different skills, but the examples given are almost always technology companies. What percentage of the workforce is employed in this sector? Do we exaggerate the importance of the knowledge sector? My concern with this argument is that it assumes that everybody will need to be a “knowledge worker” in the 21st century when, in fact, there is evidence a significant part of the knowledge economy workforce doesn’t need these so-called 21st century skills (see Brown et al. 2011). As Selwyn (2013) notes, “At best, most of the ‘informational’ jobs of the twenty-first-century would seem to be centred around technology-based divisions of labour where most workers are no longer expected to exercise independent judgement or contribute creatively to the value-adding process” (p. 153). Think of the thousands of people working in Amazon’s warehouses or call-centre workers around the world.
Even if we accept the argument that these skills are needed, there are still questions about whether using e-learning contributes to their development. Here there seems to be a confusion between using the technology as a platform for teaching and learning and using the technology for purposes other than formal learning, e.g., finding and evaluating information, communication, networking etc. It is quite possible to use e-learning to deliver online courses, for example, that make little or no use of the technology in a way that develops these skills. The 21st century skills argument tends to first assume that these skills are needed by all and that by simply using the technology at its simplest level, they will be developed. Furthermore, are these 21st century skills really that different than the 20th century skills? Haven’t we always been trying to develop communication and teamwork skills, the ability to learn independently, critical thinking, creativity, and social skills?
So it’s important to have a good rationale for using e-learning but the rationale must stand up to scrutiny. The Millennial Learning Styles and 21st Century Skills arguments are the most suspect of the five reasons. But even the others: quality, access and cost-effectiveness, must chosen with care. They need to make sense for your institution or organization
- Sinclair, G., McClaren, M., & Griffin, M. (2006). E-Learning & Beyond
- Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2005). Distance education” and “e-learning”
Question for Reflection
- What do you think of the reasons for using e-learning presented by Bates & Sangrà and my critique of some of those reasons?
- Do you think the reasons for using e-learning presented by Sinclair et al. are practical and relevant to your context?
- Where is your institution placed within the context discussed by Sinclair et al. ? Is it making moves towards a paradigm shift or is it still very traditional? What criteria could you use to measure the degree of ‘movement’?
- What is your view of Guri-Rosenblit’s claim that most of the sweeping predictions about e-learning are based on some erroneous assumptions?