The Holy Grail of e-learning: the quest continues

Brian Creese, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC). 

Sometimes something is just too easy. I was really surprised when taking a short break in Valencia earlier this year to discover that the Cathedral there housed the Holy Grail. Here was I thinking that this was one of the great and mythical mysteries of western civilisation and all the time I had simply neglected to look in the right Cathedral. Suffice it to say that despite the great amount of circumstantial evidence provided, I remain somewhat sceptical that the vessel in Valencia Cathedral was actually the one Jesus used at the Last Supper.

I had a similar feeling when I saw a headline on my regular FE News email a few weeks ago, “15 hours of e-learning can increase Functional Skills attainment by 9%”.

Successful e-learning for over-16s in English and maths is something of a Holy Grail for this (and previous) governments. Advocating e-learning is just so tempting. How can we get more young people through English and maths qualifications without a huge increase in budget? How do we deliver to the so-called hard to reach older learner? How are we to cope with the massively increased cohorts doing their GCSE English and maths retakes? The answer has to be e-learning. Over the past ten years there has been wave after wave of government initiatives promoting the effectiveness and desirability of e-learning. The previous education and training support body, LSIS, took it as read that something delivered via mobile technologies was de facto superior to it being delivered in any other way. And yet….

In recent years BIS has been keen to demonstrate the efficacy of e-learning, and last year NRDC was part of a large systematic international review of evidence on the delivery of ‘technology rich’ approaches to adult literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). We viewed just over 5,500 documents of which just 27 had something which could have been pertinent to the research question. However our conclusions were – not that e-learning was not effective – but that there was no academic evidence to support the case that it was.

There are a number of problems, including what we mean by e-learning, how the e-learning is conducted, what is the quality of the e-learning materials and so on. I have to say, I have seen some utterly dire materials masquerading as e-learning, little more than death-by-worksheet transferred to a digital format. These materials make me sceptical about e-learning.

So, you can see why I was excited to read the report which found such compelling evidence in support of e-learning. In all honesty the report was a bit of a disappointment. Firstly, it was conducted at the University of Sunderland for ForSkills and looked at how effective ForSkills learning resources were for a group of Functional Skills learners studying English, maths and ITC at Level 1 and Level 2. The sample compares 63 learners who used the ForSkills learning resources for any amount of time with the 114 learners who didn’t use those materials. There is an encouragingly linear graph showing the more time the learners spent on e-learning resources, the higher their pass rate (those who did no e-learning had a pass rate of 83%, rising to 98% for those who spent 20 hours or more on e-learning.

While I am sure ForSkills have some fine online learning resources, I am not going to give up my quest of discovering how e-learning can be genuinely effective quite yet. The small study by Sunderland is not a genuine comparison. We have no idea of how the e-learning resources were used. Did a learner using the materials for 20 hours spend 20 hours less in the classroom, or was this extra homework? If so, was it voluntary or enforced? Was the total amount of time spent studying in both groups the same? Were the results similar in each subject area and at each level? There were seven providers involved in the study, but we don’t see a breakdown of results between them – did the success rates come disproportionately from one or more providers?

The lack of good solid academic evidence on the ways in which e-learning might work in delivering English and maths to post-16 learners is a major problem. For many in the sector, particularly the 16-19 year olds doing vocational qualifications, e-learning has the potential to be a game-changer. I did a great deal of work on ‘flexible models of delivery’ under the LSIS Skills for Life Improvement Programme, and we got very excited about making videos of agriculturally contextualised learning which could be sent to an apprentice’s phone while they were ploughing a field 70 miles away. But we never did the research to find out if and how it worked, or what features were common to a successful e-learning programme. With research budgets as they are, it seems that we are condemned to continue our quest for the foreseeable future, or at least until we are able to conduct the necessary research.

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Posted in Evidence-based policy, Further higher and lifelong education

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