Accommodating Individual Learning Needs
Though this topic is of concern, the primary interest of educators and trainers now seems to be how to best establish e-learning opportunities and do this cost-effectively. Most monies spent on training are for importation of new knowledge. For instance, an average U.S. company provides 78.6 percent of their employees with training programs, as stated in a recent report issued by the Society for Training and Development. This training costs U.S. businesses approximately $50 billion annually. The importance of the Web as a tool has grown in almost all areas of education and training, but not always because it is the best method to reach educational objectives. Meaningful evaluation assessment of actual performance with well-defined feedback requires well-trained and experienced instructional designers.
The federal government is quite active in e-learning. For example, in an April 1990 memo to the heads of the executive department and agencies in regard to international education, former President Clinton encouraged the advancement of new technology throughout the world to create a global environment. He appointed an international study team that included representatives from the departments of State, Education, Labor and Commerce, as well as from the Office of U.S. Trade and the International Trade Commission. Though the main focus was on supplying e-learning products, it encouraged the use of knowledgeable U.S. educators and trainers to provide students with electronic services (Report of the International Education Study Team: Survey of U.S. Posts, February 2001).
Learning From Each Other
I would like to share with the readers some observations from the Society for Applied Learning Technology (SALT) conference held in Arlington, VA, July 24-26, 2001. "Education Technology 2001" was the theme of the meeting and included some very interesting presentations on the following topics: E-Learning in Education and Industry, Knowledge Management and Support Systems, Technology Applications in Schools and Colleges, and Development of Assessment Systems for E-Learning. However, the last strand dealt more with developmental approaches and implementation than with assessment - a topic that still needs to be addressed.
SALT conferences are not large meetings, but they bring together representatives from industry, government and academia who are involved with educational technology. And we certainly can learn from each other.
I spent most of my time at SALT's Technology Applications in Schooling and Colleges strand, but I did attend other sessions and spoke to many individuals. Some of the highlights for me were the following:
Dr. Gertrude Abramson, professor at the Nova Southeastern University, School of Computer and Information Sciences, chaired a three-hour panel. The panelists were online doctoral students sharing their experiences in communication, teaching and learning in a Web-based environment. They are now working in continued professional education, industry training, community colleges, four-year colleges and graduate schools. Some of their comments included:
- Collaborative learning is touted as the best situation to learn how to solve problems in relatively realistic and socially-enriched environments.
- The role of the teacher in an e-learning environment requires a different set of teaching-learning techniques than in the post-secondary classroom.
- Interested faculty can be taught to effectively use online resources.
- Good communication skills are essential for both instructors and teachers.
- Planning for connectiveness to overcome the feeling of isolation is essential.
- Drop-out rates continue to be high.
However, there are ways to help students remain enrolled in courses and complete them successfully.
A number of participants commented on the growing number of educational institutions using handheld devices. For example, in an English class at River Hill High School in Clarksville, MD, the handhelds seem to provide a better way to communicate, conduct research, organize class materials and complete assignments (visit the high school's Web site at www.howard.k12. md.us/rhhs). In addition, a laptop project, known as ESTRELLA, for secondary migrant farm workers and their teachers is providing online courses as students move around. These online courses are accepted by local schools in the Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden areas of Texas.
The need for sufficient teacher training to properly use technology was stressed by many presenters in the various strands. But reward systems to encourage faculty to become involved should be investigated.
Many of the instructional e-learning activities do require group work. Individuals learn best in situations that involve others to attain a common goal. Interest between teachers and students, and between students and students is essential. Students require good explanations, alternate presentations and greater use of examples.
Partnerships exist which encourage the shared use of instructional materials. For example, the National Guard Bureau Distributive Training Technology Project delivers educational training and communication to National Guard personnel throughout the country. A nationwide network connecting more than 250 multimedia classes, the facilities and programs are shared with the community and educational institutions on a cost-reimbursable basis.
E-learning has been successful and made significant progress. However, many programs are uncoordinated, omitting longer-range planning and overlooking the interest, capability and desire of the learner to work with others. Isolated individual learning is reported to leave some learners passive and less willing to work independently. However, students desiring and able to work individually do have the opportunity to go into depth on a subject and discover related materials. The virtual classroom could then facilitate individual learning based upon each student's interest, competencies, compulsions and amount of time spent. The market is growing; the economic climate has not deterred the leading-edge adopters from increasing their budgets for e-learning initiatives and telecommunications. What we must not forget is that there are many ways to learn, and addressing individual needs is an important issue.
Special note: T.H.E. Journal is sorry to lose its managing editor Jim Schneider, who has left to pursue other interests. With his departure, T.H.E. Journal welcomes new editor Matthew Miller and wishes him success in his position.
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.