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Highlights from the second theme of the Innovating e-Learning Conference 2006

Ros Smith
Last modified 30 Mar, 2006
Published 30 Mar, 2006
The learner’s experience of e-learning was the focus of the second theme of the JISC Online Conference, which opened for postings on Tuesday 28 – Thursday 30 March. The keynote session for the theme was given by John Stone, newly appointed Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) and currently principal of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.

John’s vision for a wireless-enabled, e-literate community of learners and staff captured the hearts and minds of delegates in this session. His presentation, Putting into Practice a Learner-centred Vision, prompted thinking about how institutions can support effective e-learners. The guiding principles that had steered this process were explored during the discussion.

This theme followed the format of the first, with a keynote presentation supported by 5 other sessions and an area showcasing work submitted under the Open Call. Interest focused strongly on two sessions based around current research projects into learners’ experience of e-learning, with audio clips of learners’ voices providing valuable insights into this little researched area.

The first of these: Learner Experiences of e-Learning – Exploring subject differences was given by Professor Grainne Conole, Open University, Maarten de Laat, Southampton University, and Jonathan Darby, Visiting Fellow, e-Learning Research Centre. The early findings from their online survey, conducted with students of medicine and computing, led to some vigorous debate and analysis, initially about methodologies, but increasingly insights into student behaviour caught the attention of delegates. What was beginning to emerge at an early stage in the project was the high profile of social and collaborative tools for students in HE, and a growing independence from institutionalised learning, although it was early to determine whether subject differences would be a factor in the responses. A pressing need for further and deeper analysis was noted:

“Increasingly students are selecting technologies and applications for themselves rather than relying solely or even primarily on those provided for them by their university or college.” Jonathan Darby

“What is coming out from the audios and the survey is that many students see technology as integral to all aspects of their lives - this has got to be an issue worth exploring in more depth - what does this mean, how are attitudes and patterns of usage changes, how do students use of technologies for other aspects of their lives impact on the way they learn, are the ways in which students learning nowadays different from students of the past?” Grainne Conole

The second session was based on The Learner’s Experiences of e-Learning (LEX) project, a research study into the experiences of, and attitudes to using technology for learning among a broad range of learners. This opened up some of the difficulties inherent in researching what really happens when learners work with e-learning tools:

“Some interviewees have described to us how they might post a message to the course discussion board or complete an online calendar, so that the tutor is aware that they are active, while the "real" communication with other learners is going on elsewhere via standard email, MSN or phone texting.” Linda Creanor, co-director of the LEX Project, Glasgow Caledonian University.

It was noted that the consequences of these findings will have a degree of impact on the way institutions provide for e-learning, with some concern expressed over differences emerging between the institutional and the learner’s perspective on access to e-learning tools:

“Many institutions prohibit these channels but it seems that learners expect instant feedback and instant communication (from both tutors and peers) as much in their learning as they do in their daily lives. It seems that most learners enjoy working independently and what new learning and communication technology can offer them – but the collaborative and social side to learning still seem as important as ever to them.” Carol Howells, Open Learning Partnership

“It does seem a bit ironic however that just as these freely available collaborative tools are becoming universally popular, many institutions….are backing off from endorsing their use for learning because of security and bandwidth fears.” Linda Creanor

A high number of delegates logged in to the third day of the conference and many explored ways of engaging learners in the other four sessions within this theme. Andrew Comrie, Assistant Principal at Lauder College in Fife, led a discussion around the TESEP project, ‘Learners in control’, Judy Hardy and Simon Bates, University of Edinburgh, gave the results of their study into how learners interact with online materials, while John Webber, Sussex Downs College presented on Wikis, collaborative writing and the social construction of learning, and in the process caught the reflective and thought-provoking quality of the two-day theme:

“Your question however raises a deeper theme… This is how and to what degree do lecturers' (as much as students') conceptions of learning impact on their engagement with new technologies. Again it invites the question whether it is these conceptions themselves that need challenging at least as much as the resistance to technology." John Webber, Sussex Downs College

A final comment from Professor Diana Laurillard sums up the experiences of someone new to online conferencing:

“Fascinating experience - well worth it from my point of view, as I got lots of good challenges, and much more depth of discussion than would normally be managed at a keynote. Lots to learn, but clearly the beginnings of a great new way of doing conferences.”

The conference continues on Thursday and Friday when the third theme, Innovating e-learning practice, comes on stream.


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