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E-learning comprises all possible learning and teaching process that is aided electronically. It could be done with a computer through the internet or even by the use of a CDROM. It is used by individuals, learning institutions or even businesses. Many people are being trained in many disciplines more than ever before in order to get an updated knowledge of their various fields of specialization. There has been generally a shift or a surge in interest from people and institutions of learning that are adopting the system of e-learning lately.
The core of the learning process has traditionally been focused around a classroom setting, but this gradually being replaced by e-learning. Nowadays classes and entire degree programs are being offered online thus eliminating the need for physical meetings or a central location. This therefore reduces the informational exchange among students and between teachers and students as has been for many years. The vast shift towards e-learning is clearly motivated by the benefits that are associated with it, but one has to wonder if computers and electronics are eventually going to eliminate the need for using instructors in the learning process as has been the norm for many years.
The traditional collaborative learning has been designed around having human interaction as a very key element. This has also been a key consideration when designing e-learning as e-learning portends to isolate the learners very much. This has led to the introduction of teleconferencing facilities, live chat sites and message boards so as to make the process as close to collaborative learning as possible. Most people however believe that the magical connection and feel of collaborative learning can however never be replicated by e-learning completely.
Advantages of e-Learning
The most beneficial aspect of e-learning to the trainer-based institution or organization is that of a reduced overall learning cost. This is in fact the single most influential factor in adopting e-learning. The elimination or reduction of costs associated with instructor's salaries, and student transport costs, rent of the learning facilities and meals are directly quantifiable. The reduction of time spent away from the job by employees may be the most positive offshoot. Overall this therefore implies that it has become relatively cheaper to train someone through e-learning and hence more people are able to access good education which is key in the development of any economy.
It has also been established that learning times are significantly reduced when e-learning is adopted as compared to the traditional instructor-based collaborative learning. The estimates are on average of 40 to 60 percent reduction as stated by Brandon Hall (Web-based Training Cookbook, 1997, p. 108) in his research. The time-saving element is majorly attributed to the fact that both the students and the instructors do not have to travel back and forth to a central location in order for the learning process to take place.
Another great benefit that has come with e-learning is ability to get consistent delivery of educational material with through asynchronous self-paced e-learning. Therefore interactions on e-learning channels are more succinct and on point; while discussions can stays more on-track and people can get a chance to craft their responses. This can give the learners more time to be more thoughtful in their understanding of the course material. This therefore relieves off the pressure of having to go through the learning content especially when one is not in the mood of learning. It also means that one is not just limited to the preset time of learning to be able to continue with their studies. A learner can also be able to evaluate skills and can be developed through various activities online resources prior to face to face sessions.
A participant can access the learning program at any time of their convenience, not just during the specific hour or two-hour period that is set for a conventional course in traditional learning. The episodes can be quick snatches at odd times or even long late-night sessions as long as one is in the mood for it. Cross-time-zone communication, which is very difficult to arrange in real time can also be possible incase of e-learning. This is through the networks that have been established throughout the world that interlinks different groups and learning institutions.
If well utilized, e-learning can be very influential as far staying up-to-date with latest technology and innovations is concerned. This is more importantly captured since e-learning gives access to a vast number of online databases with learning material that comes from many literary sources that would otherwise not be available in the case of collaborative learning. Good e-learning and knowledge management systems can therefore prove to be very beneficial to the student as one is not limited to just a narrow line of opinions but rather a wide range of varied opinions on the web or whichever reserves in use.
A feature that is also very beneficial during e-learning is that of having a High retention of content through personalized learning. The technology-based solutions employed allow for more room for individual differences in learning styles. It also allows for simulation of an instructor which gives a tailored solution to a learner's need. Given that students can customize the learning material to their own needs, students have a greater control over their learning process and are therefore likely to have a better and more vivid understand of the course content, leading to a faster rate of understanding and retention of the course-work as compared to an instructor based method. According to studies on e-learning, J.D. Fletcher (Multimedia Review, Spring 1991, pp.33-42), the average retention rate for an instructor-based learning technique has been estimated at only 58%, while the more intensive e-learning method increases the retention rate by 25 - 60%. This therefore implies that there is a greater value for every unit of money spent on training.
It is also true that e-learning can lead to an improved collaboration and interactivity among students. At times when small instructor-based classes tend to be the exception, electronic learning can be used to create more collaboration and interaction with experts in different disciplines hence leading to a higher success rate than the traditional live instructor-based learning. The teaching and communication techniques which create an interactive online platform for this include case studies, demonstrations, role-playing, simulations, streamed videos, personalized coaching and mentoring, online referencing as well as having FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) sections. Wizards can also be used with great effect in to create computer-user interfaces that lead a student through various dialog steps.
There are students who can have problems associated with pressure to interact e.g. in a group discussion or giving a presentation to an audience. Online training can therefore give a good solution to this as it is less intimidating than instructor-led courses. The e-learning forum is a risk-free environment in which the learners can try new things and make mistakes without exposing themselves to anyone. It can even show the consequences of the student's actions and explain to them why and where they went wrong. After going through this failure, a student can go back and try again until they master the concepts. Since the students are saved the embarrassment of having to fail in front of an audience, they can individually practice and perfect various skills, a fete which would normally have been an uphill task for them in the instructor-based method.
Through e-learning it is now possible to have a whole new approach to education. For instance, through technology, it is possible to utilize faculty from anywhere in the world. Master teachers, scientists, researchers and many experienced professional developers can be accessed at any time regardless of their locations. New innovations are also easily shared by researchers within their online groups and also through publishing it online.
Online quizzes can also give learners a platform to self-test prior to assessment or doing exams. It is possible that assessment tests can provide immediate feedback in an unbiased and non-judgmental way that the individual learners can be more easily supported. This builds confidence and can be done as many times as the learners would want to until they perfect what they are studying.
Finally, the use of mind-mapping software can be used to help learners in visualizing the relationships between concepts and eventually create a foundation for positive critical thinking. The learners can as well use assistive software which can do a great deal in developing presentation skills for the learners.
In as much as e-learning has brought an interesting and useful mode of teaching and learning, it also has brought with it various limitations and bottlenecks which were not experienced in the traditional learning methods. The biggest challenge facing e-learning today is that of requiring a large upfront investment due to the development costs that come with setting up the learning aids. In the long-run, e-learning can prove to be cost-friendly as compared to an instructor-based method. Therefore the initial strain involved has proved to be very prohibitive to many organizations to set up the e-learning environment for its students.
In e-learning there may exist instances where the learners are exposed to material that is not up to standard. This may exist though the instances are limited in number. This is especially on the internet where there is no regulating body. As this problem has continued to affect online material, most institutions are however creating their own open-courseware which has been standardized and of good quality to their students.
Another main reason that has seen e-learning not flourish is a culture issue with most organizations where student demographics and psychographics may predispose the users into not using computers at all. When this happens, the students are not likely to gain from the benefits that come with e-learning. It is however encouraging that most learning institution are embracing e-learning and use of computers in general. The students in impoverished states like Third World countries are the most affected as pertains to this.
Another factor that may be a hindrance to e-learning is whether the existing technology infrastructure can accomplish the training goals that are targeted by the training institution. The additional technology expenditures must also be justified and whether compatibility of all software and hardware can be achieved with the available budget.
There are also ways in which e-learning may not do so well compared to instructor-based training. One of these is that of students being generally technophobic as well as not being able to access these facilities at all. If students do not get exposed to technology early enough, they tend to shy away from using it even later in their studies.
It is also true that printed workbooks and reference materials are the most portable of all learning aids. It should however be noted that e-learning has also gone a great stride in trying to achieve this important attribute through introduction of mobile phones, PDAs, network linking proliferation and many other techniques.
Another major drawback of online learning is that of lesser social and cultural interaction. The impersonality and suppression of communication mechanisms are not very desirable. Good body language and peer-to-peer learning that are easily developed in the case of potential disadvantage are lessening with advances in communications technologies.
If institutions do not do enough to curb cheating, it is very easy for cunning students to be able to manipulate the online system to their advantage. In this way the student could have grades that do not reflect what they have learnt and comprehended in these courses. Some of the preventive measures that are currently being used to reduce this include the use of cameras during exams as well as timers.
Learners with low motivation or poor study habits are very likely to lag behind in case of use of e-learning. It therefore requires only disciplined students who do not need much supervision or being followed around in order to study. This tends to be tricky for younger students who mostly rely on pressure from their seniors before they can make any efforts to study. Lazy students can also give flimsy excuses for not completing their assignments such as slow internet connection or misleading information on websites.
E-learning also requires a very clear guideline to its users else the learners can get lost inside the labyrinth of the course contents and vast databases on the internet and other online reserves. Availability of a guide narrows down the areas the leaner is supposed to take interest in and therefore making learning more effective.
Slow internet connections as well as use of old and slow computers can also be a hindrance to proper online learning. This is sometimes a factor that cannot be anticipated easily and the process can therefore be seriously jeopardized if the network were to break down.
As for the support staff in e-learning, it can be very laborious to have to update the software and information each and every time for the students. Creating the course content is also an uphill task because it has to be very clear to the students what is required of them to study. Failure to do this can lead to students spending time on irrelevant material hence hindering the learning process.
Lastly, it is very obvious that technical subjects or courses that need actual practical experiments cannot be offered through e-learning. A good example is in the engineering courses where a lot of time needs to be spent in laboratories and workshops to ensure the learner has a hands-on experience in what they are being taught. However, through simulation, some of the learning can now be done remotely without having to use any instructors during the exercise.
Lack of mentorship and association with other learners is also not desirable for innovation purposes. It is only through interaction with other people that we are able to hone the talents we have and be able to share ideas on how to improve what we know. People with talents are also likely to have their unique abilities go underutilized and hence diminish with time.
Most employers also tend to find e-learners as being disconnected and aloof of what happens in real life. Therefore they are more reluctant to give jobs to such people ahead of those that undergo the traditional instructor based methods of learning.
The advantages and limitations of e-learning may vary depending on various program goals, the culture, the target audience as well as the organizational infrastructure in place. It is however clear to say that whichever side educational pundits do support, e-learning is rapidly growing as a form of training delivery and many people believe that the clear benefits associated with e-learning will guarantee it a pivotal role in the overall learning strategy.
Good online learning preparation is also not very different from instructor-based or classroom preparation. It is however important to find a way of having to integrate the pre-existing methods of learning with this new concept. This in turn makes the process less alien to the students and therefore easy to adopt.
The high drop-out rates in schools today are not caused by e-learning proving unattractive to the learners but rather due to poor designing of the course content, lack of instructor familiarity as well as inadequate preparation from the learner to use e-learning. It is therefore incumbent upon learning institutions today to try and mold students into the use of technology early enough so as to nurture the spirit of e-learning in good time.
The best way forward as far as e-learning is concerned is to try and blend it in with the traditional instructor based learning so as to optimize the benefits each of these methods use. It is easier to use e-learning without having to change our lifestyles like moving to central locations but it is also important to weigh benefit of congregating while learning. Therefore institutions should try and use the best of both sides (e-learning and instructor-based learning) in order to have the best experience in learning.
Learning using the instructor based system is the traditional style of learning from historical times but times are changing now and we cannot escape the fact that e-learning is here with us. We therefore somehow will come across times when we have to use it and therefore the it is better we earlier we appreciated what it has brought to modern learning. It is also worth noting that e-learning techniques are being improved daily. It is only a matter of time before we can truly see what is learning technique is going to prevail.