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E-learning fails in a large corporation

A large multinational corporation in India spent a large sum of money on a suite of e-learning courses, and a platform (a Learning Management System) for the courses to run on. They invited employees to study any courses of their choice, at any time during working hours.

The courses were designed for single-learner, self-paced study, and consisted largely of 'electronic page-turners' -  programmes which required the learners to read or listen to some information, and then do a low-challenge, multiple choice quiz to show how much they remembered. Learners’ only interaction with the computer was to click the mouse. There was very little thinking required. There was no interaction between learners, and there were no facilitators, although learners were given the option to phone an ‘expert’ in the company if they needed assistance in understanding the course.

Management was deeply disappointed to discover that, a year later, less than 6% of the company’s employees had completed a single course.

An award-winning university

Since the early 2000s, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Australia has been running many of its courses completely online, for students around the globe.

USQ’s approach to teaching includes a substantial emphasis on collaboration between learners. Aside from reading the course notes, undertaking independent reading and doing challenging assignments, learners are expected to go online at least weekly (daily if possible) and communicate with other learners via an asynchronous discussion forum.

Many learning activities require collaboration for completion of the task. In several courses, learners also have synchronous meetings using web-conferencing technology.

Every year, USQ enrols greater numbers of learners for its online programmes. USQ has won numerous awards for its open and distance education programmes, including the Commonwealth of Learning Award for Excellence in 2004.

An experiment in cross-institutional e-learning

The following description is based on the case study by Rohleder et al (2008).

Students from two universities in the Cape Province of South Africa, the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and Stellenbosch University (SUN), collaborated on an e-learning course across two disciplines: Social Work (UWC) and Social Psychology (SUN).

The two student bodies differ broadly in terms of race, culture and class: UWC tends to have more students who would be classified as 'black' or 'coloured', and who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, whereas SUN tends to have more 'white' students, who come from more advantaged backgrounds. The idea was to use the exposure to diversity as a springboard for reflecting on questions of community and identity.

The course involved both a face-to-face component and an online component. The face-to-face part consisted of two workshops - one at the beginning and one at the end of the course. In the first workshop, they drew pictures representing themselves and illustrating how they had arrived at the point in their lives where they were doing this course.

After this workshop, the communication shifted online, and students engaged in conversation with one another, in groups of five or six, about their pictures. The online work was beset by unexpected technical challenges, in that the region suffered several severe power outages during the course.

However, despite these difficulties, the vast majority of the students said they had enjoyed the process, and had learnt valuable lessons from the interaction with people from diverse backgrounds. This is summed up by a comment from a 'coloured', female student from SUN:

'Through all of this, my identity finally touched base. Honestly speaking, I was going through a bit of an identity crisis. Because I am 'coloured' I always felt that we did not have a set culture, I found myself adapting to things I did not want to do, just so that I could fit in. From this collaboration I gained new perspective on things just because my opinion in the group was valued equally. This collaboration provided the opportunity to combat the negative internalisations that existed in me due to what was installed in me. My position in the community and my identity within any community has thus become areas of which I am proud and has contributed to my "self" as a whole.'

Reflection

  1. Why do you think the e-learning programme in India failed? What do you think might have been the reasons that so many employees did not complete the programmes?

  2. Why do you think the e-learning programme in Australia has been so successful? What are the main differences between the two programmes?

  3. In the cross-institutional example from South Africa, what do you think were the factors that made the programme successful, despite the power cuts? Consider for example:

    • The blended learning approach, which allowed learners the opportunity to meet at the start and end of the process

    • The possible advantages/ disadvantages in disclosing information about yourself in writing rather than in a face-to-face conversation

    • The possible advantages/ disadvantages of the asynchronous nature of most of the communication

    • The deliberate focus on diversity in partnering the two universities

References

Rohleder, Poul, Swartz, Leslie, Bozalek, Vivienne, Carolissen, Ronelle and Leibowitz, Brenda. 2008. 'Community, self and identity: participatory action research and the creation of a virtual community across two South African universities'. Teaching in Higher Education, 13: 2, 131 — 143.