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Why e-learning?

This post first appeared on the Epic website on April 6th 2011…

I’m often asked ‘How can e-learning possibly be anything but a poor replacement for being in a classroom with a wonderful teacher?’

It’s a good question.

What could be better than being inspired and motivated by someone who is passionate about their subject and can take the time to answer your specific questions? That’s the ideal, but in practice, most people would agree the classroom experience isn’t always quite so rosy.

Even the best teacher simply can’t cater for all the needs of all the students. As a result, the classes I’ve found most valuable have been those where I’ve been an average student — too far ahead of the class and I’ve been bored, too far behind and I’ve felt lost.

This is where e-learning comes to the rescue! Well designed e-learning allows learners to tailor their experience to their own skills and knowledge, and people who need extra support can find what they need.

An added support is social media (see our blog post, Social Media and Learning) which is creeping its way into learning more and more these days, teaching people in a way that means they’re hardly aware they’re learning. Social media allows remote learners to ask questions of their peers, meaning they retain the collaborative aspect of being part of a class.

Of course, a key distinguishing factor in the classroom is the teacher. Teachers can be enormously inspiring and people often say that their decision to follow a certain course in life was influenced by an inspiring teacher from their past. But teachers are individuals: not every student is going to get on with every teacher.

At the 2009 Games Based Learning conference, Nolan Bushnell (the founder of Atari) gave the keynote speech. In it, he explained how he’d been asked which teacher had most inspired him. It turned out that the teacher he named hadn’t inspired the rest of his class in nearly the same way. The teaching style which worked so well for one extremely able youngster had been less than a hit with his peers.

Where social media leaves a gap, e-learning may struggle to replicate a really great learner/teacher relationship. However, one could argue that no relationship has a better effect on learning and retention than a poor one.

While the best classroom experiences may be unbeatable, good e-learning can offer a better and more consistent learning experience.