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eLearning tools and pedagogies

Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Moodle are all the rage these days in higher education course delivery. While an LMS almost certainly simplifies the day-to-day administrative tasks involved in higher education, it does not necessarily deliver better pedagogy or a better educational experience for students.

On the administrative side, there is no doubt that an LMS enables greater flexibility for teachers and students alike. Both are able to access the system anywhere at any time from almost any device, so that practices like using email and USB drives to move data around are now a thing of the past … an LMS puts all that in the cloud. An LMS can enhance accountability and compliance by providing detailed logs of every action performed, and it can simplify assessment submission for students and subsequent feedback by teachers.

However, even the most modern LMS does not prevent the use of outdated pedagogical approaches. Indeed, fragmented, closed, decontextualised and almost random collections of multiple choice questions, for example, are just as common in an LMS as anywhere else, and are just as inadequate as learning exercises.

21st century pedagogies demand open-ended learning, enquiry-based and project-based learning, and eLearning tools must support and encourage this. A useful analogy can be found in recent experience with iPads in Australian primary schools.

Around 5 years ago the so-called “edtech revolution” was in full swing in primary schools, with thousands of dollars being squandered daily on iPads. There was a lot of talk around about how the technology was going to “revolutionise” learning, but sadly the outcomes fell some way short. It soon became obvious that many “educational” apps are poorly designed, selected and utilised, and that the pedagogies they employ amount to little more than the digital rote learning of a small, closed sets of almost randomly selected facts (for example, matching vocabulary items with pictures). Yes, the multimedia packaging is wonderful but too many apps enable only passive consumption and allow no room for active, creative learning.

Apps which really have the potential to revolutionise learning are the “open-ended” tools that demand enquiry, creativity and collaboration, such as video editors, audio editors and eBook creators. These apps have no content of their own and instead require students to create their own content. The learning potential for language, mathematics, team work and just about anything else is limited only by the imagination of the teachers and students involved.

It is important to separate technology and pedagogy when evaluating eLearning alternatives. No amount of bells and whistles can compensate for inappropriate pedagogy. Education today must focus on the “21st century skills” students require to succeed in a rapidly changing digital world. These skills require deeper learning based on analytic reasoning, complex problem solving, and teamwork rather than traditional, primarily content knowledge-based academic skills.

Professor Leesa Wheelahan has argued in relation to vocational training that current training packages focus on “narrow competency based training that educates workers for largely routine and supervised roles, rather than training them to be proactive and versatile” (references below). On the other hand, thriving modern enterprises require employees with creativity, initiative, flexibility and adaptability.

VET eLearning resources should not reflect or embody this tendency to structure learning as a series of narrow competency definitions which fragment knowledge and skills and provide students with only limited, specific procedural knowledge to be applied in limited, supervised contexts. The tasks posed by our eLearning resources should require our students to creatively connect, synthesise, recontextualise and reapply ideas and skills in a dynamic environment.

There is no doubt that an LMS is great for education administration, but it may not provide the best environment or tools for collaborative online learning. More open ended alternatives such as Google’s GSuite (formerly Google Apps), for example, can provide stable, reliable and highly integrated environments combining video conferencing, messaging, email, shared online documents, storage, multimedia, websites, forms and much more, and can be integrated into an LMS with a simple hyperlink. I have found this simple method of enhancing an LMS’s capabilities to be quite useful in my own teaching.

Mixing and matching Moodle with a toolset like Google’s GSuite can make Moodle a more open and flexible environment for both instructors and students alike. The ability to quickly and easily edit and share a wide variety of content types encourages agile, iterative development of courses and projects.