Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Paradigms in E-Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 14, 2005

Originally posted to DEOS-L, June 9, 2005.

In 1998 I wrote an essay called The Future of Online Learning. ( Nice PDF version here: Link ) In that essay, I described many of the features of learning that in the eight years that followed have come to pass. In that essay, I offered a very concrete account of what was meant by online learning - not with a pithy one-line definition but with a detailed description of the technology, process and methodology.

In his email, Farhad Saba declares that the concept of 'e-learning' has not been shown to be 'valid' (whatever that means) and that "does not offer a durable and reliable concept that can explain a specific kind of learning..." He seems to place much stress on the use of wires in online learning. In my account, by 'online' it was very clear that what was meant was the use of the internet, not the use of wires. The internet is itself a very clearly defined concept, consisting as a collection of networks linked through TCP/IP.

Why is this account significant? It makes it clear that online learning is distinguished not merely by the fact that there exists a transactional distance between instructor and learner, but that this distance is mediated by a computer network. This mediation entails that the computational capacities may be employed to in some way alter or enhance that transaction. This creates a very different environment than that envisioned by Moore; for example, the idea of transactional properties being expressed as simple cause-effect relationships [ Link ] is replaced with transactional properties being expressed as patterns of connectivity [ Link ].

Even in 1998, it was clear that transactional distance mediated by a computational network would result in some characteristic features or properties of online learning. These properties are not definitive of online learning in the sense that they are necessary and sufficient conditions, but they define a cluster with fuzzy boundaries in a space of possible types of learning, forming what Wittgenstein would call a family resemblance. For those who have no inclination to reread the essay, I identified the following features (thios is not a definitive list, but will do for the sake of this post):

- the use of 'bandwidth' (as opposed to 'wires') and computer technology (including embedded devices)
- the emergence of a function-based computational environment (what we would now call 'web services')
- the personal access device (or PAD; what we now call the PDA and the tablet computer)
- the use of multimedia and immersive software
- the use of standards-based synchronous and asynchronous conferencing systems
- the use of a topic-based educational delivery system (what we now call the LMS)
- the personalization of learning using learning modules (what we now call learning objects)
- the incorporation of learning styles into content delivery (what we now call learning design)
- time and place independence for learners
- the use of online learning technologies to support traditional classrooms (what we now call blended learning)
- the development of topic-based learning communities (what we now call communities of practice)
- the use of peer-based learning communities (what we typically call learning centres)
- disassociation between teacher and content provider
- disassociation between the delivery of learning and the evaluation of learning

Saba writes, "online learning, and e-Learning (or other physical science derivatives) do not even pass the first level of analysis, let alone the deep analysis that is required for them to be considered as paradigmatic." Online learning, he writes, is therefore "part of the general theory of distance education, but are not paradigmatic." One wonders what would qualify, then, as 'validated' and 'paradigmatic'.

Certainly there has been no shortage of studies of things like conferencing systems, immersive multimedia and learning management systems. Moreover, it is clear from those studies that there is not merely an extension of the pedagogical possibilities of traditional distance or classroom learning but a reshaping of those possibilities. In my essay Educational Blogging [ Link ], for example, I explained how learner-generated educational material could result in the spontaneous emergence of distributed learning communities through the successive filtering of contents in multilayer communications networks. This sort of learning does not merely go beyond traditional distance and classroom learning, it is a new type of learning, based on the stimulation of experiences through interactions with a previously unknown (and ultimately undefined) set of knowledgeable agents external to the classroom or distance learning environment.

The normal use of 'paradign' is usually that intended by Kuhn, the idea that an undertaking now qualifies as what may be defined as 'normal science', with a relatively clear problem-space, a generally accepted experimental methodology, a commonly accepted taxonomy of terms and concepts, and a generally accepted set of underlying assumptions. Online learning, as I have desscribed it here, and as practiced by thousands, probably tens of thousands, of instructional designers and technologists around the world, satisfies all of these conditions. So much so, indeed, that in my own writing I have taken to describing it as 'traditional online learning', focused as it is on measuring learning outcomes, employing learning design workflow processes, and using technology and other specifications as defined by IMS or SCORM.

So much so, indeed, that I have in recent weeks been using the term 'e-learning 2.0' [ Link ] to designate a set of newer initiatives characterized by a fuller embrace of the network model of learning (this term is not unique to me [ Link ]). I have done so because the traditional model of online learning contains enough vestiges of traditional classroom and distance learning that it is tempting to react as Saba does, to begin to think that there's nothing really new happening here, that the use of computer technology does not really introduce any new affordances, doesn't really force us to reconceptualize what it is that we are doing, doesn't really offer, indeed, an alternative to what has gone before.

I don't have time in this short note to characterize the principles of this new paradigm. I have attempted to elucidate some of them in my talk Learning Objects in a Wider Context [ Link ] and others in my talk Community Blogging [ Link ]. In addition, George Siemens has done an admirable job in his paper Connectivism [ Link ]. And even today, Jay Cross came at the same concepts in a presentation titled A Workflow Learning Pattern Language [ Link ]. Many more writers have added to what is a growing canon of work.

There is a distinct discipline I call 'online learning' and the evidence that it is indeed a distinct discipline is overwhelming, so much so that I stared in frank amazement at Saba's comments and was moved to write this post.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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