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Communities and e-learning – interview feature


Dr Gilly Salmon, leading author and expert on e-learning, talks to TrainingZONE about learning communities in computer-based training.

TrainingZONE What are the main principles that contribute to a successful e-learning programme?

Dr Gilly Salmon The key principles are that groups of online participants wish to work together and that they need the support of a teacher, trainer or facilitator (the person I call an ‘e-moderator’) to be successful. E-mail, chat groups, bulletin boards, and computer mediated conferencing were developed to enable interaction between people. If a voice or text message is sent the writer expects a response from some other. This key characteristic can be harnessed for the purpose of teaching and learning. To date, much work has occurred in the area of the design and application of tools and technologies for learning but only a little practical and useful research has taken place on the promotion of online tutorials led by an e-moderator and involving active-learning and group work.

TrainingZONE What are the main obstacles (or mistakes) that can contribute to the failure of e-learning programmes?

Dr Gilly Salmon Preparing effective online learning materials is an expensive business in terms of actual and opportunity costs. Few academics, teachers or trainers have all the necessary skills, time or desire to acquire them. Usually, teams need to be set up with academics with subject expertise together with creative Web developers, programmers and instructional designers. Quality assurance and evaluation processes are essential too but they add time and effort. Surprisingly, many teaching and learning organisations start with developing resources of this kind as they seem to be the safest ‘way in’ to e-learning. But they find that there are no quick fixes, many expensive experiments, and ‘pilots’ that fail lead to ‘scaling up’. However, in my view, developing intreractive group work is lower risk, lower cost and a better place to begin.

TrainingZONE Has e-learning fundamentally changed work-based training?

Dr Gilly Salmon Electronic communication and resources have fundamentally changed the way we work. E-learning has yet to catch up. When e-learning first started flexibility and choice for learners was given priority over groups working together. Now we know that cohorts not content are ‘King’

TrainingZONE Are there topics for which e-learning really doesn't work?

Nope. But learning takes place in people’s heads anyway, not electronically. It can be made easier or harder, more or less fun, with e-support. That’s all.

TrainingZONE Do trainers and training managers need to develop new skills to build e-learning into their programmes? What do they need to pay attention to to
keep learners on track?

Dr Gilly Salmon Development of staff one of the main factors in determining the success of moves online.

In 2000, I first used the term ‘e-moderating’ to capture the wide variety of roles and skills that the online teacher, lecturer or trainer needs to acquire. Supporting learning online through synchronous and asynchronous conferencing (bulletin boards, forums) requires e-moderators to have a wider range of expertise compared to working with face to face learning groups. Education needs to change to include e-moderating to match the development and potential of new online environments.

Successful and productive e-moderating is a key feature of positive, scalable and affordable e-learning projects and processes. Regardless of the sophistication of the technology, online learners do not wish to do without their human supporters. How many people, for example, have been heard to say, “I’m great at strategy because of my inspirational computer?” Not any that I’ve met, on or off line! Instead learners talk of challenge and support by their lecturers, or of contact with the thoughts and the work of others. Most people also mention the fun and companionship of working and learning together. Such benefits do not have to be abandoned if developing online learning results in a cohort of trained e-moderators to support the trainees.

Although increasing numbers of learners are working online, few trainers have themselves learnt this way. Therefore, e-moderating is not a set of skills most people have acquired vicariously through observing teachers whilst they themselves were learning. Many trainers naturally believe that learning to e-moderate is mostly to do with learning new software or computing skills (or that they will be dispensed with altogether). This is not the case. They must be traijned and developed in the online environment itself.

TrainingZONE How important is a sense of community in keeping e-learners engaged?

Dr Gilly Salmon Online, very special micro-communities can be created through active and interactive activities (what I call e-tivities). Whether the community will last a few weeks or a few years, it’s a very special learning and teaching opportunity. They impact on motivation, knowledge construction and full engagement with the learning opportunities. They don’t happen by change, or even with fantastic online multi media opportunities. They need an e-moderator.

The e-moderator can promote webs of trust that are not based on physically meeting. Establishing strong norms based on trust in each other is critically important for the success of later learning in groups and teams. The lack of face to face and visual clues in online participation is a key ingredient of success, rather than a barrier. If the remoteness and lack of visual clues are handled appropriately they can foster the comfort level of e-moderators and participants alike. There are wonderful opportunities for cross- cultural working of all kinds.

TrainingZONE Where do you think the e-learning market is going, and how should we expect the use of technology to develop?

Dr Gilly Salmon There is an interesting paradox emerging in understanding the need for educational experiences. Previously we had a sense of audience, perhaps more recently of market segments. However one impact of the Internet is that neatly packaged target markets do not present themselves. Passions for and uses of technologies grow in a way that has little to do with demographics! The new meaning of access to educational products and services may be quite individual (i.e. do I want this? Do I need this?).

I think there is 4 main ways in which technologies will impact on e-learning. One is through the increased use of content delivery, another through the immediacy (Just in time, Just for me, Just enough, Just for now technologies), a third through mobile technologies and a fourth through the growth of the Internet as a discussion and community ‘space’. Different e-learning providers will exploit different niches.

Dr. Gilly Salmon is an academic member of the Centre for Innovation, Knowledge and Enterprise at the Open University Business School in the UK. She is also Visiting Professor at Glasgow Caledonian Business School. She chairs the OUBS’s large (online) professional Certificate in Management. She has been involved in online teaching and learning since the 1980s and is the author of the widely used book “E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online”. (See review). She has two research degrees - one in change management and one in online teaching (she says she needs both in the e-world!).

Her forthcoming book E-tivities: the key to active online learning will be available in September.


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