What can history tell us about e-learning and its future?

The following contains some initial thoughts about what might turn into a paper for ASCILITE’09. It’s likely that I’ll co-author this with Col Beer.


The idea of this paper has arisen out of a combination of local factors, including:

  • The adoption of Moodle as the new LMS for our institution.
  • The indicators project Col is working on with Ken.
    Both Col and I used to support staff use of Blackboard. This project aims to do some data mining on the Blackboard system logs to better understand how and if people were using Blackboard.
  • Some of the ideas that arose from writing the past experience section of my thesis.

Abstract and premise

The premise of the paper starts with the Santayana quote

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The idea is that there is a long history of attempting to improve learning and teaching through technology. There is a history of universities moving to new learning management systems and staff within those universities using learning management systems. In fact, our institution has over 10 years experience using learning management systems. Surely, there are some lessons within that experience that can help inform what is being done with the transition to Moodle at our institution?

The aim of the paper will be, at least, to examine that history, both broadly and specifically at our institution, and seek to identify those lessons. Perhaps the paper might evaluate the transition to Moodle at our institution and, based on that past experience, seek to suggest what some possible outcomes might be.

As you might guess from some of the following and some of what I’ve written in the past experience section of my thesis, I have a feeling that as we explore this question we are likely to find that our institution has failed Santayana’s advice on retentiveness and that the institution may be repeating the past.

Given that some of the folk directly involved in our institution’s transition to Moodle read this blog and we’ll be talking about this paper within the institution, perhaps we can play a role in avoiding that. Or perhaps, as we dig deeper, the transition is progressing better than I currently perceive.

In reality, I think we’ll avoid making specific comments on what is happening in our institution. The transition to Moodle is being run as a very traditional teleological process. This means that any activity not seen as directly contributing to the achievement of the purpose (i.e. that is not critical) will be seen as something that needs to be curtailed.

Connection with conference themes?

The paper should try and connect with the themes of the conference. Hopefully in a meaningful way, but a surface connection would suffice. The theme for the conference is “Same places, different spaces” and includes the following sub themes (I’ve included bits that might be relevant to this paper idea)

  • Blended space
    What makes blended learning effective, why, how, when and where?
  • Virtual space
    What is the impact, what are the implications and how can the potential of this emergent area be realistically assessed?
  • Social space
    What Web 2.0 technologies are teachers and students using? How well do they work, how do you know, and what can be done to improve and enhance their use?
  • Mobile space
  • Work space

Not a great fit with the sub themes but I think a connection with the theme in a round about way. Perhaps the title could be “E-learning and history: different spaces, same approaches” or something along those lines. This might have to emerge, once we’ve done some work.

Potential structure and content

What follows is an attempt to develop a structure of the paper and fill in some indicative content and/or work we have to do. It assumes an introduction that will position e-learning as a amnesiac field. This suggestion will be built around the following and similar quotes

Learning technology often seems an amnesiac field, reluctant to cite anything ‘out of date’; it is only recently that there has been a move to review previous practice, setting current developments within an historical context…many lessons learnt when studying related innovations seem lost to current researchers and practitioners. (Oliver, 2003)

I should note that the following is a first draft, an attempt to get my ideas down so Col and I can discuss it and see if we can come up with better ideas. Feel free to suggest improvements.

History of technology mediated learning and hype cycles

The aim of this section is to examine the broader history of technology-mediated learning going back to the early 1900s and drawing a small amount of content from ????.

The main aim, however, is attempt to identify a hype cycle associated with these technologies that generally results in little or no change in the practice of learning and teaching. It will draw on some of the ideas and content from here. It will also draw on related hype cycle literature including Birnbaum’s fad cycle and Gartner’s hype cycle.

E-learning usage: quantity and quality

This section will provide a summary of what we know from the literature and also from the local institution about the quantity and quality of past usage of e-learning. With a particular focus on the LMS.

Col’s indicators project has generated some interesting and depressing results from the local system. For example, out institution has a large distance education student cohort. A group of students that rarely, if ever, set foot on a campus. They study almost entirely by print-based distance education and e-learning. Recently, Col has found that 68% of those distance education students have never posted to a course discussion forum.

Paradigms of e-learning and growing abundance

The aim of this section would be to suggest that the focus on the LMS is itself rather short-sighted and does not recognise the on-going evolution of e-learning. i.e. that we’re not going to be stuck in the LMS rut for long term and perhaps the institution should be looking at that change and how it can harness it.

This section will draw on the paradigms of e-learning. It may also draw on some of the ideas contained in this TED talk by Chris Anderson around the four key stages of technology and related work.

Thinking about this brings up some memories of the 90s. I remember when friends of mine in the local area would enroll at the university in order to get Internet access and an email address. I remember when the university had to discourage students from using outside email accounts (e.g. hotmail) because they didn’t provide enough disk space.

This was because email and Internet access inside Universities was more abundant than outside. Those days are long gone. External email providers like hotmail and gmail provide large disk quotas for email than institutions. For many people, it’s increasingly cheaper to get Internet access at home. At least it’s cheaper to pay for it than pay for a university education you don’t need.

Diffusion, chasms and task corruption

Perhaps this section could be titled “Lessons”.

The idea behind this suggested section is starting to move a little beyond the historical emphasis. It’s more literature and/or idea based. So I’m not sure of its place. Perhaps it’s the history of ideas around technology. Perhaps it can fit.

The idea would be to include a list of ideas associated with e-learning:

Predictions and suggestions

This is getting to the sections that are currently more up in the air. Will it be an evaluation of the transition or will it be simply a list of more generic advice. The generic advice might be safer institutionally, better fit with the conference themes, and more more generally useful.

An initial list:

  • The adoption of Moodle will decrease the quality of learning and teaching at our institution, at least in the short term.
  • Longer term, unless there is significant activity to change the conception of learning and teaching held by the academics, the quantity and quality of use of Moodle will be somewhat similar, possibly a little better (at least quantity) than that of previous systems.
    Idea: Col, can we get some of those global figures you showed me broken down by year to see what the trend is? i.e. does it get better or worse over time?
  • Strategic specification of standards or innovation will have little or no impact on quantity and quality, will perhaps contributed to a lowest common denominator, and will likely encourage task corruption, work arounds and shadow systems.
  • Increasingly, the more engaged academics will start to use external services to supplement the features provided by the LMS.

I’m often criticised as being negative. Which is true, I believe all of my ideas have flaws, imagine what I think of the ideas of others! So, perhaps the paper should include some suggestions.

  • Focus more on contextual factors that are holding back interest in learning and teaching by academics. (See technology gravity)
  • Recognise the instructional technology chasm and take steps to design use of Moodle to engage with the pragmatists.
  • Others??


Oliver, M. (2003). Looking backwards, looking forwards: an Overview, some conclusions and an agenda. Learning Technology in Transition: From Individual Enthusiasm to Institutional Implementation. J. K. Seale. Lisse, Netherlands, Swets & Zeitlinger: 147-160.

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