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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why E-Learning? “Pull” vs. “Push” Makes All the Difference

Let’s re-examine the basic benefits of e-learning. With the high cost of transportation as well as hectic work and family schedules, many people who have been slow to take online courses are signing up for the first time. You may be wondering what advantages e-learning has over traditional face-to-face courses.

The major benefits: accessibility and convenience. Your online course can be logged into at any time and at any place. This is a huge advantage over traditional face-to-face courses that are held in a classroom or meeting place, especially if you have a busy life that required travel or many family or work commitments.

Further, the convenience of the online course really can’t be matched. Needless to say, none of that is true if you’re in a situation where you do not have high-speed internet, or your connection is limited or intermittent. But, assuming that you’ve got a great connection and that it’s always available, you’re in fantastic shape with an online course. You can log in after the kids are in bed. You can work during your lunch break. You can work from your hotel room or an airport or a restaurant offering wifi connections. There is truly nothing like it.

But, what about the other benefits? Surely there is more to life than convenience and access. How about the learning? What about the idea of connecting with other students? How about the intangible, but very valuable feelings you get when you join a college or university community? If you take an online course, will you be missing out on school spirit, study buddies, lively in-class discussions, and passionate discussions over coffee and pastries at the local purveyor of fine coffee drinks and bakery items?

E-learning has come a long way from its earliest origins. Back in its inception, online programs often offered courses that got the job done, but they weren’t very exciting. You might write responses to questions for each lesson, the e-mail them to your instructor. You might read online material, listen to audio, then take interactive quizzes, which were automatically scored and entered in a gradebook. Alternatively, you might watch videos of recorded classroom lectures, and then take a test over the contents of the lecture and readings. Again, the methods got the job done, and they pushed content to you, but they weren’t very exciting.

What has changed?

First, there’s been a big shift in the way that people envision online courses. Before, there was always the notion of “pushing” or “delivering” content. Course designers thought that if they could “push” or “deliver” content to the learner, everything would be okay. The leaner would soak up the content, and then respond to it in a way that would reflect how much he or she learned. That might have worked for some learners, but it certainly did not work for all.

The “push” concept of learning, which characterized correspondence courses and some traditional lecture courses, led to high drop-out rates, and low completion rates. In fact, it was not unusual for a correspondence course that utilized the “push” concept to have completion rates as low as 18 percent.

“Push” has turned to “Pull.”

Thanks to improved software, high-speed connections, but most of all, to a new philosophy of learning that stresses interaction and engagement, rather than passive receptivity, e-learning is in a new era.

Instead of “pushing” content, the college or university sets up a learning environment that encourages students to interact. They are “pulling” content and responses to each other.

How does the “pull” concept work?

First of all, the student who logs into an online course will find that he or she is required to interact and communicate not only with the professor, but also with other students. Information streams in on demand – which is to say it is “pulled” from the servers.

Second, the student chooses what, when, and where he pulls content from. It’s a choice. So, there are many ways to customize the learning experience, and the sequence and way in which he/she pulls material corresponds to one’s own unique learning styles and preferences.

Pulling means customizing. While it’s necessary to conform and perform in an online course, a good course is not rigid. It allows the learner to do things in a way that is comfortable. Do you like to interact with your peers first, before you do the reading? Do you like to take practice exams? Do you like to read what others are saying in their drafts? It’s all possible in the “pull” model of online courses.

Learning communities are friendly places. The successful elearning experience is one that creates a sense of a learning community that can be as strong – perhaps even stronger than – the face-to-face experience. You never feel alone, and when you have questions, you can post them at the very moment you have them. You don’t have to wait until class.

Also, you have a chance to frame yourself in a positive way. You are protected emotionally and socially far more than you would ever be protected in a face-to-face course. You may have experienced courses in which you felt pressured to go along with “group think” or to “dumb down” in order to conform with your group or to not seem like a freak during in-class discussions. In an online course, you have much more flexibility. Sure, there’s common sense, “netiquette” and appropriate behavior, but overall, most people find the online environment to be open and intellectually freeing.

Why e-learning? In responding to the question, it becomes evident that more questions are triggered. Nevertheless, it’s clear that e-learning makes sense, and will make even more sense as time goes on and infrastructure improves in rural areas (more high-speed access) and people are able to do some of the work via mobile learning.

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