02 April 2008

On e-tailoring (emperors, for the use of)

Excuse the cryptic title. The link is to Phil Beadle's stimulating column in Tuesday's Education Guardian. He discusses the current obsession with "e-learning" in education, in very sceptical terms.

Education is periodically swamped by waves of fads, which (usually) retreat leaving only a little damage. We are hearing a little less about "learning styles" nowadays, "accelerated learning" has passed by, but "inclusivity" is breaking all over the shore (it's made all the more potent because few people know what it is, and it appears to have no downside—until you try practising it, of course, and see what it does to all the students who are not "special"...)

But few of these illusory panaceas have been embraced as enthusiastically as e-learning, partly of course because it is a very profitable business. Beadle points out how in schools it introduces a layer of mediation between pupil and the topic of learning; instead of learning how to produce silk-screen prints, he points out, children are encouraged to simulate Warhol's effects on a computer. Calculators came in twenty or more years ago, and mental arithmetic had to be re-introduced as a specific disciplines because the mediating technology substituted for the mental skill. Richard Sennett points out that computers in architecture, for example, can actively militate against the development of craft skills.

I used to argue against e-learning on the grounds that the technology placed an accessibility barrier between the learner and the material; until the computer interface was transparent and taken for granted, it would be very difficult to engage with the material. The ubiquity of computers is such that nowadays such a consideration does not apply for most university students, although it may well matter for older learners. However, when e-learning substitutes for rich direct experience, it cannot but deliver an impoverished version; it needs to be relegated only to those areas where it unequivocally adds to the overall experience as nothing else can.

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