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This week the New Zealand Ministry of Education released the latest report (well actually an annotated bibliography) identifying major themes and messages for the tertiary sector from an analysis of the e-learning literature. The key findings of the report entitled "Learners' Participation, Retention and Success in e-learning: An Annotated Bibliography" include few surprises and generally underscores the importance of institutional policy, teacher pedagogy and the way in which e-learning is part (or not) of the learning culture. Derek Wenmoth provides a useful summary of the major themes.
Instead of restating or repeating Derek's blog posting, and the report's Executive Summary, in the spirit of constructive critique there are a number of statements and conclusions that do not sit comfortably with me. For example, arguably one of the most serious flaws in the report is the claim associated with learning styles. The report concludes that “Learning styles are predictors and determinants of learner outcomes” (p.11). As far as I'm concerned the learning styles literature has been well and truly discredited by a number of leading scholars and there is very little evidence supporting this movement. Here is a link to just one report of many in recent years that challenges the validity of learning styles. Indeed some proponents go so far as to totally reject the claim that learning styles exist and in many respects the literature in this area is nothing more than pop psychology. I'm very surprised to see such high level endorsement of learning styles in a Ministry of Eduction report and it raises questions about whether the report was subject to sufficient peer review.
Another statement in the report that raised eyebrows to say the least is the claim that “females prefer a more collaborative, interactive approach whereas males tend to take a more functional approach” (p.14). Such sweeping generalisations are not helpful and this type of conclusion is not as well empirically grounded as common folk knowledge would suggest. Again I'm most surprised to read such a statement in a Ministry report which tends to discredit the validity of other more solidly grounded conclusions.
The other issue I have with this report is a common flaw throughout the e-learning literature in that the use of the term e-learning encompasses a range of practices. Arguably relatively little can be gleamed from studies that do not unpack the different assumptions, pedagogical orientations and tools of e-learning which range from reinforcing the practice of multi-choice tests to supporting media rich and highly complex online scenarios exploring wicked problems. Put another way e-learning is not a stable or fixed entity that can be studied as an independent variable.
At Massey University we intend to devote a forthcoming “Hot Topic” lunchbox session to discussing the major themes and messages in this report. I've already invited the author of the Ministry report to attend this session in order to engender some lively discussion.
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