“E-Learning: An Oxymoron?”

Jakob Nielsen is a usability guru I have followed ever since my PhD days, who over the years has expressed many sound and insightful opinions on usability and human-computer interaction. So I had a real jolt when I read that headline in his recent column “Writing Style for Print vs. Web”. He writes first

“I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector — which have been around for 500 and 32,000 years, respectively.”

followed shortly by

“We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.”

I think that many in the e-learning community could reflect on this profitably. But though I may know a lot about e-portfolio related technology and interoperability, I certainly know much less about e-learning more widely, of which I have no practical experience. Does Jakob, I wonder? Is he thinking about the (too prevalent, but simplistic) model of e-learning as just putting lectures, notes and tests on-line?

And what’s this about books? To be sure, books are archetypally reader-paced, allowing time for reflection whenever wanted, and perhaps this is one factor missing from impoverished models of e-learning. But they could not be called interactive – that is more the province of the “sitting around the campfire”, when learners can ask questions and discuss matters with other learners and with their teachers.

Jakob favours “author-driven narrative” – but what about learner-driven learning? Can’t this be greatly facilitated by the kind of electronic tools that go along with enlightened approaches to e-learning? To risk being a little cynical, e-learning is probably less easy to profit from than books and lectures (for the author, that is!)

Renownedly, Moodle’s philosophy is constructivist – would that be a surprise to Jakob, or would he say that Moodle is attempting the impossible?

The “bottom line” here is that e-learning people need to check whether the modes of learning that they are encouraging, implying, suggesting or allowing do not fall foul of the valid points in Nielsen’s analysis.

3 thoughts on ““E-Learning: An Oxymoron?”

  1. Hi Simon

    IMHO we need to stop talking about “e-learning” as being something different to any other types of learning. What we need to concentrate on is enabling teachers and students to utilise the most appropriate technologies ( digital and non digital) to create the optimum learning experience. BTW I know of courses where students and tutors sit round the campfire in second life.


  2. Hi, Simon,
    I feel that E-Learning is NO oxymoron. It might be in some cases of traditional university presentations, but even that is changing. However, university life is only one very small almost insignificant part of the sum of learning of all sectors of education (formal, non-formal and informal, Adult, Leisure etc).

    Speaking for the pre-19 sector I would suggest that the big ‘E’ is rapidly transforming teaching and learning.

    The following links are somewhat limited, but in short presentations begin to suggest some areas where it is the big ‘E’ that can really transform both teaching and learning.



    But then, I’m biased, e-Portfolios are my overwhelming passion!

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