Saturday, January 28, 2017

E-learning, Twenty Years Later

Once upon a time I was perched at the intersection of two career choices; 1) a path towards teaching and 2) a pragmatic exploitation of technology skills that we’re becoming ever more popular in the workplace. This personal nexus point occurred about 20 years in 1996. Anyone looking at my profile can guess which choice I made, but the story is a little more interesting than merely that of a techie who chose economic pragmatism over an academic career. Little did I know that my interest in teaching would lead me directly into the crucible of invention and innovation that has since changed the way almost everyone on the planet learns.
There are times when one realizes that he or she is the middle of something unique, something historical. I have had other experiences with which to measure that sense of recognition – for instance in 1987 when I was staying with friends in Argentina and witnessed an entire nation rise up to demonstrate support for their Democratically elected government against an attempted military coup – millions were marching in every city in the nation. The coup failed. That even was all the more significant given that Argentina had suffered under 40 years of Fascist rule until just a few years before. I tried to document it in my own way at the time but have since lost the photos I took and the notes I wrote down – what stayed with me was the sense of what true change looks like.
Fast forward a few years and I find myself studying a Masters in English Composition and Rhetoric with a concentration in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language). In the intervening years, I had taught English abroad as well as computer related courses and worked with web development among other things. I had both a practical and theoretical grounding in various education concepts & practices including everything from Instructional Design to Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar. All of that was interesting, but not earth-shaking per se. However, what seemed obvious at the time was that I was witnessing almost the exact moment that Education as we knew had reached a cross-roads. In 1995 and 1996, E-learning had more or less just been coined as a term and the initial preview of what was to come began to emerge. Now things like distance learning and CBTs had already been around for awhile (I had in fact helped produce video courses at community college TV station some years before), but the real game changer seemed to be the ubiquitous, global web platform & standards with the first generation of browsers like Netscape, Mosaic etc. With the web came a slew of other new technologies such as Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and collaborative meeting rooms and the beginnings of Social Networking.
In 1996, I faced a tough choice, while I felt very strongly about the importance of Education and considered it my most probable career path, I had some serious misgivings. While coming close to completing my Masters, I decided the best course would be to try to combine my academic interests with my love of technology and thus I proposed to build my Master’s thesis around emerging practice & methodology for extending E-learning into nearly every facet of traditional education. At that point, the decision was no longer in my hands – the academic committee at the graduate school I was attending rejected the proposal and in fact any thesis associated with the topic E-learning on the grounds that the topic and field were not mature enough and thus unworthy of serving as an appropriate thesis. I tried in vain to convince them otherwise; both in the context of the already significant scholarship dedicated to the topic (even in 1996), as well as in what seemed to me to be the obvious conclusion that even if the field were somewhat immature, it was all the more reason to explore and evolve it. One thing was clear – it was the future, whether the world was ready for it or not. Unsuccessful in my attempts to persuade them, I left the degree program (I got another Masters in Information Design later) and left teaching as a career to join the IT workforce. What’s more, I began looking for opportunities to help continue my original intent in helping to define what E-learning might become.
Over the next two years, I had three different projects where I worked as an IT trainer and courseware developer. This gave me both further grounding in instructional technique as well as a lot more exposure to key standards and technologies associated with E-learning. For example, my courseware projects involved creating courses on web application development – at precisely the same time that new web standards were being released by the W3C, including CSS, XML, XHTML, early forms of Javascript and the DOM. Then I got a contract at Cisco Systems and headed out to Silicon Valley. Mountain View and San Jose were quite shockingly different from Dayton, Ohio. The culture was vibrant, the Terminator was running for Governor and Silicon Valley was in the midst of the biggest boom anyone could recall – it was the age of Start-ups, IPOs and stock options - and paper millionaires (folks whose stock was valued in millions due to the massive speculative tech bubble) were literally everywhere. It was also one of the most innovative times in American history; there was an expectation that not only were things going to change for everyone, but that change would be defined in this valley.
Cisco was right in the middle of that milieu. When I arrived, the superstar CEO John Chambers had just made the announcement that E-learning was the next Internet Killer app. I even saw him walking around the giant Cisco campus a few times – I recognized him from the many magazine covers he had graced in the months beforehand. Cisco wanted to make good on Mr. Chamber’s promise and had assembled a large team of very talented people across several groups to help redefine education for the 21st Century. They tackled it from multiple perspectives, including the Cisco Academies as well as the Field E-learning Connection, a project that I became involved with. This Cisco team became a focal point for a wider group of companies, universities and institutes that began defining what next generation E-learning solutions would look like. Like all great changes though, this one was borne in the midst of some fascinating controversies and I found myself deeply involved in them.
Essentially, there were two-world views within the E-learning camp (the camp being an initial set of most self proclaimed experts and tech evangelists). While the group agreed on the shared premise that E-learning would be become pervasive across all aspects of society (e.g. fulfilling the promise of becoming the Internet’s Killer app), they disagreed what it would or should look like. The first group, who were more influential at the time, definitely had a more academic perspective and felt that Learning should adhere to fairly rigid standards and instructional design expectations. The second group (and I soon found myself within that camp), believed that E-Learning was to some extent an outgrowth of the technologies that made them possible and thus offered new opportunities to approach education in general that might prove more effective than the traditional doctrines (some of which actually date to Roman times).
This contest manifested itself in a number of ways over time, but one of the more specific examples of the battles that raged within it was the notion of Learning Objects and the delivery systems that would be used to serve them – Learning Management Systems (LMSs). The core E-learning industry was rallying around the LMS as the primary commercial Learning solution and the Learning Object standard that began driving the industry was something called SCORM (which had its origins in ISD, CBTs and the DoD). The basic idea behind a Learning Object was solid enough and seemed to conform with other emerging standards like XML – a Learning Object represented a modular, self-contained portion of a larger set of objects which be configured as needed into courses or curricula. However, this was around 2000, and the architecture behind the standard moved learning content development towards greater complexity which turned led to a higher cost per hour of content created.
Those of us on the other side of the argument certainly saw the value of SCORM based systems and content, but we had a wider view of what learning content was and how it could be delivered and managed. For about two and half years I continued participating in the debate; in the middle of which the Tech Wreck happened and I left the Silicon Valley and headed back to the Miami Valley. During these years I continued to fight for my vision of what E-learning could look like, through articles and an online community called Learning Leaders. For me it wasn’t just about business or winning a debate, the philosophical contest was very personal – to me this seemingly technical question held within it a much larger question regarding the nature of all education.
In the early 2000’s, after the tech wreck, the E-learning market nearly disappeared, just barely holding on. Then during the mid-2000’s things started to pick up again as mobile technology, portals and social networking become more prevalent. It was also around this time that learning delivery systems become more flexible and began to be adopted on an institutional scale – then quickly – almost overnight it seemed, E-learning was everywhere. Every college, every tech school and even K-12 education began hosting a myriad of Learning Technologies. Business models began changing and yet the big question was still not being addressed. The question hinted at in the dichotomy between rigid or flexible Learning Objects could be characterized this way when viewed in a larger context – should Education be flexible and learner focused or rigid and expert-driven? This is a big question – one that came up quite a lot in the recent 2016 Election although perhaps many didn’t see the connection. Essentially, anyone who was making comparisons with the Finnish Education system versus standardized assessments (a recent trend in the US), was tapping into the very same controversy. It’s a fascinating question, one that spans both personal motivation as well as the mechanisms for learning delivery (e.g. technology).
Over the past seven years in particular, the free market seems to have been moving more towards one side of this conflict than the other. Despite there still being a very rigid focus on standardized assessments in traditional environments, corporations and consumers who have been given the opportunity to choose informal or dynamic learning options versus traditional instructional design driven offerings have overwhelming moved to take advantage of informal learning. If you’re reading this on you can see this right now by clicking on the Learning menu item at the top of the screen or perhaps you’ve had a chance to experience the Kahn Academy or any number of similar sites. It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally getting close to point where personal learning solutions with access to unlimited content and the ability to dynamically define one’s own courses and education paths will become ubiquitous. I think the conclusion to this story could be characterized this way – in E-learning the medium has become the message in that the medium has given us an excuse and a freedom to view Education in an entirely different way. I feel privileged to still be around to see how this field has evolved moving ever closer to its true potential and even more privileged to have been involved in helping to define what it might or ought to look like.  And that’s one of the really cool things about working in IT, because believe it or not, anyone anywhere has given the opportunity to contribute those sorts of ideas and innovation and as a result, change the world, one step at a time. I think I made the right choice…
Copyright 2017, Stephen Lahanas


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