Are e-learning systems easy to use?

Not especially . . .

A recurring theme throughout the Special Issue are the technical difficulties and worries that beset staff and students when a web-based course support system is first implemented or used:

Is it a 24/7 service?

Alexander reported that UTS experienced serious data corruption and server downtime in the first two years, which resulted in staff disillusionment with the system; student frustration when unable to complete online tasks; and serious student complaints when an exam had to be cancelled (p.291).  While Lazenby points to network problems being the cause of student complaints about access and threats of withdrawal; while lecturers took the brunt of student frustrations and were unable to develop their courses or communicate with students (p.301).

Can students access the site from home or work?

When not caused by server downtime (see above), students appear to have a variety of problems including ignorance of setting up modems, port problems, slow connections in rural areas and difficulties of access from behind firewalls at the workplace.

Do staff and students have enough computer skills to use the site successfully?

Once successfully connected to the web site both staff and students may have problems using it: "Contrary to popular belief, even engineering students are not computer literate" (Lazenby, p.301).The distress caused by technical problems is evidenced not only by the increasing mountains of instructions and guidance put out by the e-learning systems companies but also by recent qualitative research into student learning (Hara & Kling, 2000). Such distress, although worse during the early part of a course, should not be underestimated.

How can staff & students be helped?

The authors of the Special Issue have provided much useful advice and experience about how to tackle the above problems.  These all stress the importance of starting with reliable hardware, software and a robust network but vary in the method of implementation used.  Authors all advocate providing students and staff with technical information and support before they start using the system and that this information and support should be provided in alternative formats, e.g. hard copy, by telephone hotlines, or face-to-face orientation sessions (Alexander, Lazenby, Fisher, Brown).  For the success of ongoing e-learning, both staff and students need adequate services , infrastructure and support (Collis & De Boer).

Can the e-learning system itself be improved?

Complaints of time spent navigating to see if a message has been received, clumsy interfaces and demands for a search facility demonstrate that the systems themselves are in need of some re-design (Lazenby p.300, Alexander, p.291-2).  Landon & Robson point out that in 1999 few, if any, e-learning systems provided accessibility for persons with disabilities (p.449).  The current position can be determined by accessing Landon's comparative analysis web tool and selecting the accessibility critieria.  Collis & De Boer found that none of the commercial products met their requirements (listed on p.345-6 of the Special Issue) and so they developed their own.

Is technology only a tool? 
Fisher concludes that "technology is only a tool and is only as effective as the ideas and applications of those who deal with the technological challenges" (p.329). The whole of the Special Issue would appear to support this message which is that, despite difficulties,  e-learning systems can be used in support of constructivist teaching methodologies and improved learning experiences for students

However it is as well to consider the opposite viewpoint - that technology is more than just a tool and can effect not only how we do something but also what we choose to do or even how we perceive it.  At a macro level it is worth reading David Noble's polemic denouncing Digital Diploma Mills and Frank White's reply: A Dissenting Voice.   Nearer home, Dale Spender claims that the pressures on the university in the society are technology driven.   At a micro level it is worth reflecting how the nature of the different systems can affect the way we use them (see myGlossary entry and also messages to the H802 conference - latter link is password protected).


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