Jan 31, 2010
Known as the father of e-learning 2.0, the Canadian researcher Stephen Downes was recently in Barcelona, taking part in the 6th UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning Conference. Downes is senior researcher with the New Brunswick Institute for Information Technology in Canada. Specialising in e-learning and new communication media, his greatest ambition is to achieve barrier-free transmission of knowledge over the internet.
You are known as the father of e-learning 2.0: can you tell us what it is?
Online teaching first came into being in the late 1980s, with the use of computers in conferences. But the system really took off in the mid-nineties when the internet appeared. In 1996, the University of Maryland started to provide courses on its website. (The UOC is another pioneer in this field: its first academic year was 1995-1996!). Shortly afterwards, developers began producing programs for this kind of content, such as Web Course Tools (WebCT), Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) and Moodle (http://docs.moodle.org/es). Now we have gone one step further, using social networking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help transmit knowledge. This is what e-learning 2.0 is. It can also come from creating one’s own social network. In the early days, online classes formed the basis for e-learning, but it is now obvious that it is much more than that: it’s a matter of online communication.
This system makes education more accessible. This coincides with your own, personal philosophy: your ambition is to have a society “where knowledge and teaching are public commodities and are not monopolised or concealed to gain wealth and influence”. Are we making any progress towards this?
All societies have forces which are working towards this and others working against it. It is difficult to pinpoint, but the fact is that the internet and its technologies are making education available to many more people these days. However, publishers want to control information, governments, their policies… There are many ways in which external forces limit the individual’s autonomy and personal freedom. Sometimes they believe that they are doing this for good reasons (and they sometimes are) but, as a rule, controlling information is not a good thing.
I get the feeling that information can no longer be controlled, that there is no way back. The “revolution” began a long time ago…
Yes, that’s true, but there is always a counter-revolution. Let me give you an example. The launch of devices like the iPhone is a step backwards because all the applications that this product has are controlled by Apple. Not only does Apple manufacture the applications, but it controls the ones that are used and the content or information that is being distributed. The iPhone user can only access information via Apple-approved servers… This is a step backwards because we can upload/create any content we like on our computers. And when this kind of control exists there is also a tendency to exercise greater control over the commercial aspect; for example, you have to pay to update the iPhone operating system. And for the content, for access… And people don’t always have the money to do so!
How can we make the internet more democratic?
There are two ways: one is to improve people’s ability to work with the technologies and the other is to make the technology simpler (which is happening all the time). But we need both aspects because it is not only a question of dealing with the technological tools but also of concepts and information. That is why people need to have semantic skills: an education which provides them with the ability to manage the language of new technologies. If they can’t create, speak and send messages, if they are passive receivers, it’s as if they were illiterate… Another key point is easy internet access and lower prices.
Coming back to e-learning 2.0, what other advantages do social networks have for teaching over the internet?
The main one is that it places the students in an environment in which something is being created. They are not passive receivers of information: they are involved in the process of searching for, creating and producing information. And that’s the way to learn. We don’t learn because people explain things to us. We learn from doing them. Why do we take notes in a traditional class? Because it is a way of working with the subject that they are teaching you: you are making it your own. And that’s what produces knowledge. It’s what moulds your brain.
And can we achieve the same effect with these new tools?
Yes, because on the internet we can write, draw, create images… However, we have to be careful because the tendency in e-learning technologies is to look for applications which will do the work for you (like take notes, search for information, etc.), but when the machine does it for you, you don’t learn anything. The tools that help you to do things but don’t do the work for you are the ones which help you learn.
When the Open University was created in the United Kingdom in 1969, one of its objectives was to facilitate access to education for the disabled. I imagine that this is one of the main considerations when it comes to e-learning…
Yes, absolutely. The WWW Consortium (W3C, an organisation designed to achieve maximum potential of the web) has what is known as the Web Accessibility Initiative, which conducts research into ways that people with various kinds of disability can access the internet. For example, screen readers, which read the contents of the web page out loud.
Another thing which might act as a barrier on the internet is language. What is the answer to this?
The issue of language is very delicate. English has been the predominant language up until now, but these days there are more speakers of Chinese online than English speakers, even though many of these Chinese people speak English… In any case, I don’t think it is a good idea for any one language to dominate because each language implies a different way of seeing the world, of representing all the possibilities. That is why these languages need to be preserved. Translation is one way out, because nobody can learn that many languages. But it is hard to get a good translation because that implies a cognitive process that a machine cannot provide.
Can you remember the first time you came in contact with the internet? Did you realise it was going to play such a huge part in your life?
I started working with computers in the 1980s, when the internet was a minor issue. Even then, I thought that they were going to be very interesting. I continued working with computers on various projects but I remember one key moment, which was when I was told about a programme called MUD (Multi-User Dungeon): a role-play video game. They told me I could access it from my home computer. So I used my modem, connected to the university server and registered with this MUD. The game gave you a description of a situation (like “you are standing in front of a castle, the gate is shut”) and you would type in an order (“open the door”, “kill the monster”, etc.). It was a typical game but the interesting thing was that there were other people who were also at home, on the internet, sitting at their computers, playing the same game at the same time as me… And I could talk to them. That was when I realised that this was not just a game, but something infinitely better.
- BA and MA in Philosophy from the University of Calgary.
- Senior researcher with the Institute for Information Technology E-Learning Group, National Research Council, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
- Among many other publications, he is the author and publisher of the OLDaily, a daily e-mail newsletter dedicated to e-learning.