“Questions of cost and usefulness dog e-learning”: thus read a headline on 4 June 2009 in the Times Higher Education.1 According to the article, which reports on a survey carried out amongst 125 university staff, many academics see e-learning as expensive and time consuming: “it takes much longer to create high-quality e-learning material than to prepare for a traditional form of teaching to achieve the same level of learning and outcome” (p. 9). Another respondent felt that “E-learning is not as good as face-to-face interaction, but it is sometimes a necessity”. At the 2009 conference of the Centre for Excellence in Work-Based Learning for Education Professionals2 at the Institute of Education, London (9 July) a roundtable discussion about the use of (digital) technology was held in which participants were invited to discuss what they perceived to be “(unhelpful) discourses” in the field. Figure 0.1 sets out which issues came up in the discussion. As can be seen, there are deemed to exist a number of unhelpful discourses dominating the implementation of (digital) technologies, in particular transmission models around the delivery of content or the use of technology for control and management purposes around increased effectiveness. Judging by the comments made by expert discussants on the day, there appear to exist problems in embedding (digital) technologies in existing practices, an issue this book seeks to address. “Perpetual obsolescence” leads to problems around sustainability and often efforts around the introduction of e-learning are framed by a productivity and modernization paradigm. All in all, even if not a comprehensive list, this is a challenging agenda for university staff wanting to implement e-learning.
In this book we explore questions around e-learning with a view to establishing what best be understood by it, mostly with reference to teaching and learning in the context of higher education provision. We also explore why the phenomenon achieved the prominence it has in the last 10 years or so with many providers offering a range of types of provision which make at least some use of (computer-based) digital technologies. And we attempt to delineate e-learning as a discipline by providing a summary and overview of some of the key issues and studies dealing with the phenomenon with reference to relevant research.
We do so because we find that very often the term e-learning is used without ever clearly specifying what is meant by it. In this way people think they are talking about the same thing when this is not necessarily the case, which in turn makes it difficult to achieve synergies and joint understandings that can help practitioners, policy-makers, researchers and managers gain a realistic assessment of the affordances of the investment in time, money and creative thought necessary to exploit the potential of digital technologies to the full. In a sense, therefore, the views of university staff quoted above are not surprising and relate to some fundamental problems of how e-learning is perceived by different stakeholders. Too often digital technologies are “sold” on a false premise of inflated benefits, mostly around efficacy and effectiveness, without due consideration of the disruption they invariably cause to established pedagogical and administrative practices and “technological” and procedural systems and infrastructures. Laurillard (2008a: 524), for example, notes that technology creates an important pressure for change in that it is changing both what we need to know and how we come to know it. Whilst e-learning is invariably not a panacea, it seems essential to engage with these changes. Indeed, society around us is characterized by significant cultural, economic and technological changes and technology is fast becoming an integral part not only of our everyday lives but also, of course, of the higher education landscape (cf. the discussion of the “mobile complex” in Pachler, Bachmair and Cook, 2010). As such, technology has the potential to support higher education in a number of fundamental ways: it can help advance pedagogical practices, processes of teaching and learning, government policy initiatives such as widening participation, financial exigencies of universities such as in the context of the recruitment of international students, resource stringencies such as in the context of the repurposing of material and so on.