E-learning- The Changing Tide in Education

By Keith A Cronk, CIO, Harding University

Keith A Cronk, CIO, Harding University

“Elearning is changing. And, we will see new models, new technologies and designs emerge. So, let’s drop the “e”–or at least give it a new and wider definition.”

“We need to bring learning to people instead of people to learning.” Elliot Masie

According to the data on an info graphic prepared by the Straighter Line group, the first completely online curriculum was produced in 1994. In the late 1990s just about anyone could download WebCT – a newly developed learning management system (LMS). You simply went to a server at the University of British Columbia and downloaded WebCT. WebCT was a tool to manage a virtual classroom. At the time, it was raw, stand alone and not readily integrated into or with other systems. I was one of the many who downloaded it. I used it as a tool to manage my courses.

"Designed and developed with learner and not the instructor in mind"

WebCT focused on managing a classroom, more particularly an online classroom. An instructor could share documents, contain class correspondence to one location, use a rudimentary and standalone grade book and conduct online class discussions. WebCT lived up to its name–web course tools.

While learning did happen in WebCT classrooms, looking back, the early LMS tools focused more on the management of a class rather than on the learning aspect. Many instructors simply uplifted their on-ground class materials into the LMS and adapted the assessment and interactions to the LMS.

The early LMS required substantial infrastructure and administrative support and overheads. The information technology departments had to maintain additional servers, storage, and interfaces to other systems and networks. E-learning departments formed to support the instructors and learners. The support was usually in the form of a help desk to provide support that is more technical in nature for instructors and students. The roles and duties of help desk agents were not clearly understood nor defined and at times had considerable overlap, e.g. a help desk agent could be asked to address a course requirement better handled by the instructor on record and instructors were being asked to address technical issues.

“Trains are great dirty smoky things,” said Will. “You won’t like it.”

Tessa was unmoved. “I won’t know if I like it until I try it, will I?”
-Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince

Today, we can safely conclude that use of the LMS is deeply ingrained in higher education, corporate training, and professional development.

There are more LMS products from which to choose; many have been through constant and thorough redevelopments. Many have come and gone and been subsumed into others.

However, I contend that the use of the LMS is now a mainstream, where it has reached the point where learners expect to be engaged through an LMS.

The top 10 reasons LMSs are now mainstream:

1. They have become more learners focused. This was essential for any major shift in LMS progress.

2. They are designed and developed with the learner and not the instructor in mind. Point 1 above is thinking more about the mindset and starting point. After the mindset has changed to be learner focused, the actual product has to be constructed in line with that mindset.

3. They are truly cloud based which has removed the overhead of infrastructure support. This was very important to the IT support services area. The LMS was adding considerable cost to the IT support budgets. While it is still a considerable cost, the concerns over providing support staff and hardware is eased.

4. The ancillary tools used in conjunction with the LMS have matured and expanded in variety. There are a plethora of tools and apps to support learning with technology, especially in the K-12 arena.

5. Expertise in instructional design, and the rise of centers that support instructors to enhance learning with technology. There are now well-accepted rubrics and quality standards, which are used in the development of courses. This provides consistency at high levels for course materials.

6. The ‘aging out’ of faculty in colleges and universities. A significant resistance to the use of newer technologies has been felt by some older faculty. However, with turnover, this has changed to where newer faculty is looking for the LMS and other technology to be incorporated into their classrooms.

7. Many K-12 systems require the students to take online classes. This creates an expectation and experience at a young age. Learners expect to use an LMS and as they progress, it is normal for classroom activities to include an LMS.

8. The incorporation of tools that allow for synchronous interactions. These tools allow the LMS to be the classroom for students on-ground and online. Recently, I heard of a situation where a student in Albania was getting up at 2:00 am to attend a synchronous class being conducted in Memphis, Tennessee. That student then was able to attend class in Memphis. The student remained in the class throughout, in the LMS.

9. The rise of the for-profit organizations offering accredited degrees. This helped drive and in some cases fund LMS development.

10. Accreditation requirements have raised the standard and expectation of online and hybrid courses.

Of course, the LMS has not reached its endpoint. LMS products continue to develop and morph. As institutions and organizations fully realize that they can truly reach out to the entire world, they will use and demand more from the LMS. As education, be it formal or informal, understands that it is operating in a global marketplace, the LMS will mature and change even more.

Perhaps as virtual and augmented reality tools are enriched, the learning environment will become so seamless that we can be in the virtual and real classroom together and not know the difference. Is that the LMS in which you would want to learn?