Learning Management Systems (LMS)

eLearning: A Global Classroom Story

We take a look at the potential and promise in eLearning through the decades and around the world.

In 1917 my 11-year old great-grandfather caught a boat from his home in Mombasa, Kenya across the ocean to the Kathiawar peninsular on the western edge of India to attend school. Plumped straight into a world of strict vegetarianism - even in the holidays - this was a vastly different culture. Yet after three years he moved again, to the UK, for still more seismic changes. Finally, in 1922, he made the then mammoth journey to Darjeeling on the eastern side of India, to complete his secondary education. 

In a world long before air travel, or the internet, these distances seem truly incredible, not to mention expensive, but such is the draw of a ‘good’ education. Then, as now, a solid command of English, sat at the very centre of it all. Whilst in the early twentieth century this went one step further as Britain, and all its colonies, were moderated under one system: the Cambridge Examining Board.

This saw students tested in subjects like English, History, French, Greek and Latin and offered a common benchmark for everyone; albeit an Anglocentric one. My great-grandfather took his in Junior Cambridge Exam in 1923. And now, nearly a century later, with the help of technology, these exact same learning trends have been magnified out again, far into the adult arena.

There are the distance learning platforms like the Open University, constant real-time webinars and most importantly of all, Massive Open Online Courses or ‘MOOCs’, which mean anyone can glean the ‘benefits’ of a prestigious Harvard (or elsewhere) education, all from the comfort of their own home. In fact, the BBC World Service ran an excellent documentary, ‘The Education Revolution’ on the impact of all this in emerging regions, like Kenya, a few months back.

Geography: eLearning in Emerging Regions

In the same way the Cambridge Exam Board ruled the roost in its day, today cache comes from affiliated institutions. Now, as then, there is also an especially heartfelt emphasis on education in emerging regions, like Kenya. As James Hanaway, Head of Development at eLearning charity, Camara, explains:

“There is a real ambition to be in school across [all] the countries [we work in, through Africa]. This is the pathway to bettering yourself and there is hunger for education that is a lot more apparent within the kids in the school [than you ever see here in the UK]. They want to absorb everything.”

Dan Oja and June Jamrich Parsons are based in the US and produce eLearning content and solutions. Over the last couple of years they have been building partnerships with companies on the ground in India, Pakistan and the Middle East, to supply technological platforms and premium quality materials:

“The thing that really surprised me was the number of students in private school,” says Parsons. “[And because parents are paying] they want results [this means testing software and materials]. Also, in order to get more students the schools need to show something which distinguishes them. [This means] the schools are very interested in digital solutions.”

“In the US [the educational emphasis tends to be] let’s think about the process and not think too much about the result. In these [emerging] markets it is [all about] the result. It is a different focus; a different thing you’re trying to do,” explains Oja.

“There is a clear internalisation that education is the pathway to success,” adds Parsons. “And no legacy stuff in terms of IT. [Through the big publishers in the US] Learning Management Systems [LMS] have been in place for 10 years now and there is a vested interest in using them. In emerging markets their infrastructure is paper books, so they’re [more] open to new sophisticated ways of doing things.”

History: eLearning through the Decades

Oja and Parsons know what they’re talking about as they have been in the eLearning business for a long time: “We had our first digital, interactive textbook in 1996/97,” says Parsons. “That may be the very first interactive digital text book. We’ve been looking around to see if there is something earlier than that and have not found it.”

“Of course, there were online courses from Plato from some of those old systems way back in the 1960s when they used mainframes and they had these big terminals, but those weren’t books, per se. And ours were digital books [in] which photos would turn into videos and there would be in context questions that students would answer and get graded; so students could get immediate feedback on how well they were doing.”

“That is the New Perspective text books and we have another series [Practical Computer] both are award winning text books and best sellers – we’re pretty proud of them.”

Yet Parsons’ heritage goes even further back than that. Her father was Assistant Dean of Michigan State University and eventually President of Northern Michigan University. And so between her childhood and career (including a degree in education and educational technology and 20 years teaching at university level), she has seen the full gamut of educational techniques played out via technology.

“When I was about eight years old he [her dad] worked with those old fashioned computers. They called it programmed learning and basically there was a chunk of information that you read and then you answered some questions. You answered the questions correctly, they sent you onto the next concept, if you didn’t answer the questions correctly they showed you some remedial stuff.”

“I was one of the guinea pigs for this programmed learning at Michigan State University… now it is new again.” And to take the process full circle, Parsons herself is today working on some pretty progressive approaches to learning and has just pioneering a concept called “Reading with eyes shut”.

English & Other Languages: eBooks’ Potential

“People who love to read have one thing in common - they create pictures in their mind,” she explains. “They see the characters and they see the setting. But for reluctant readers [she quantifies these as often, though not exclusively, young boys 8 -12] they spend so much time trying to decode the words on the page that all their mental activity goes to that so they have nothing left over, no free mental capacity to do that visualisation. They don’t get appreciation for reading.”

The story and accompanying technology Parsons has created aims to overcome this obstacle as it allows the child to press a button and have the story read aloud to them. This means they can visualise the pictures whilst not having to worry about deciphering the words. And in a lot of ways it means a tablet can perform the same function as a parent who reads bedtime stories to a child who traces the words.

Simple eBooks like these hold incredible promise for learning. In fact our own recent research showed that 59% of 251 global tech professionals surveyed believed eBooks have the biggest potential in education. And as Apurva Ashar, Founder of e-shabda, the local language eBook section of enterprise and IT solutions company Cygnet Infotech Pvt Ltd, suggests, eBooks’ potential for children goes beyond formal education:

“We have [a lot of] Indian language young children born in other countries,” he says. “They speak Guajarati in their own home but they don’t read it. I see a lot of scope for interactive books which contain audio as well as the script. [This would definitely be a benefit] for the sake of a small child. [It would] help bring them back to their roots.”

Science: Why Learning is Hard to Define

eLearning covers the whole educational spectrum: from the way children are taught; to the way they are tested; right through to the new methods for adults to use learning get ahead. None of this is simple or clear cut, and there is no one answer that suits everyone.

Yet in the end, the biggest division that emerges across the board is whether people are learning to ‘get an education’ (in some broader sense), or whether their aim is to pass some exams. My great grandfather failed his Cambridge exam in 1923 and despite an extremely successful career in business it stayed with him for ever. As he wrote in his memoir:

“When I think of my life, I know I have achieved greatness, but when I look at my academic career I have not even passed my Junior Cambridge exams. I have been a Junior Cambridge failure.”

This is an interesting perspective. Yet surely all those childhood experiences across three massively different continents were far more valuable than some high percentage scores in long dead Latin? It certainly makes you wonder how eLearning fits into this bigger picture.

Maybe, after all, it doesn’t matter whether you’re learning online or offline? What really matters is what you want to learn… and how you’re approaching examinations.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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