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Online Learning: Rhetoric or reality?

By Geoff Scott and Shirley Alexander - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2000


Is Communication and Information Technology (CIT)-enabled learning, otherwise known as online learning, a case of the emperor's new clothes or truly a force which is about to change not just society but the face of education and training forever?

A range of recent reports commissioned by the Australian government has highlighted the growing expectations for CIT to facilitate significant change in higher education.

There is little doubt that a large degree of faith and money is currently being invested in CIT-enabled learning. A recent Report by the Bank of America (September, 1999) predicts that the market for web-based training in the U.S. will have risen from $200 million in 1997, to $2 billion in 2000 and $5.5 billion in 2002.


Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the CIT-led revolution is rarely matched by research or evaluation evidence to substantiate the financial, vocational, societal, cultural, creative or personal benefits anticipated.

Evolution of Educational Technologies

Since the invention of writing there has been a passing parade of new technologies, each of which it is claimed has the potential to 'revolutionise learning'.

Completion of the first business computer in 1951 heralded a wave of new applications for computers, including the use of a computer to predict the outcome of a presidential election in 1952. Educationalists responded quickly and the dream of the 50s was that college classrooms would be connected to computers which would serve as patient tutors and scrupulous examiners. Further, it was expected that the benefits to students would include the freedom to follow their own paths of learning, at their own pace at a time convenient to them, with richer materials to work with and automatic measurement of their progress.

Early evaluation studies generally supported the effectiveness of computer-based teaching as a supplement to conventional instruction.

A number of media comparison studies were produced in the 1980s which were typically based around a scientific research paradigm with control and treatment groups and pre- and post-tests. A large proportion of these studies revealed that students who had used computer-based instruction achieved better results than those who were taught in a classroom. A further study revealed however, that those learning gains virtually disappeared when the same instructor taught both the control group and the experimental group.

Not to be discouraged by the 'roar, stumble and fade' of Computer Based Instruction, the last few years have seen the promises of multimedia and online learning draw yet another enthusiastic crowd.


The Claimed Benefits & Realities of Online Learning

The Bank of America Report claimed a range of benefits. These are listed below with a summary of the evidence to hand and the realities associated with achieving those benefits.

E-learning is beneficial because it:

1. Is available at any time:

Yes, but only if you have an up-to-date computer, net access, know how to use it, can trouble shoot or have the money or friendship/family networks to solve ongoing hardware or software problems; it requires a level of hardware, software and network reliability that is not always there.

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About the Authors

Associate Professor Geoff Scott is Coordinator of the Quality Unit at the University of Technology, Sydney. His specific areas of research and writing are change management in education and training; quality management, evaluation, assessment of capability and effective learning design in post-secondary education.

Professor Shirley Alexander is Director of the Institute for Interactive Multimedia at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Related Links
Institute for Interactive Multimedia
Professor Shirley Alexander's Home Page
University of Technology
Photo of Geoff ScottGeoff ScottPhoto of Shirley AlexanderShirley Alexander
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