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Diana Laurillard was the first speaker I ever heard (at the CHI '98 Conference) to articulate a true learner-centered philosophy of e-learning—and I've been a fan of hers ever since. Her talks, papers, and book, Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology, provide a rational and balanced perspective on the role of technology in education.
The basic premise of her work is that technology should not be used to replicate existing classroom practices, but should be exploited to do what is not possible in the classroom. Diana Laurillard is Head of the E-learning Strategy Unit at the Department for Education and Skills in the U.K., and was formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Learning Technologies and Teaching) at Britain's Open University.
LISA NEAL: What will you be doing in your new position?
DIANA LAURILLARD: I am head of E-Learning Strategy with the Department for Education and Schools in the UK, which is the "ministry of education," if you like. The role goes across all the education sectors and training. And the idea as I understand it is to raise awareness, proselytize, encourage, and develop policy for e-learning. My unit will have the opportunity to scrutinize all policies under development and see where e-learning could make a difference and play into the government's agenda in a variety of ways. It's not a technology-driven issue, it's a technology-enabling issue.
LN: How do you feel about leaving the Open University (BOU)?
DL: Very ambivalent, indeed. It's the perfect place for me to be because it's a kind of laboratory for e-learning all on its own. BOU provides a tremendous opportunity to explore and find out what the technology can do on a variety of fronts. It works on the large scale, which is what technology really needs to do—technology does not work particularly well on the small scale. And it's an organization that cares deeply about learning and the quality of learning. On the other hand, I feel that U.K. education generally is not properly exploiting new technology, and so I want to take what I've learned at BOU into the national agenda.
LN: In your new role, can you bridge the gap between how people in higher education or in the corporate sector develop programs and assess the outcomes?
DL: I think what would be possible to do is try to clarify the link between cost and outcome. Higher education has very limited, often public resources, so we've got to be absolutely sure that we're getting the best value out of those resources.
People are getting employed for shorter total periods of time. You don't have a job for life anymore—you move around much more. There's a much more flexible job market. We trail the U.S. by about three years or so typically in technological areas and possibly economic areas as well. So that is likely to mean that individuals will feel themselves responsible for their own personal development, or feel responsible for their own education and training.
LN: What is your perception of the quality of e-learning in the UK and the EU?
DL: We have a quality-assurance process within the higher education sector in this country. And that imposes standards on individual institutions, which they have to address, and we get judged on the basis of the quality of our teaching. As e-learning is becoming more and more a factor within what higher education does, the quality-assurance framework that we all have to work to and the quality standards that we have to sign up to and meet will become more explicit around e-learning.
LN: Do you think that instructional design has moved into the online world yet?
DL: I think one of the difficulties with some theories of instructional design is that they are just inappropriate for the kind of quality of learning that we want to generate. The origins of instructional design can sometimes be found in a much more sort of rule governed approach to learning—it's there in the terminology, actually. It's about instructional design, it's not about the design for learning. There's a way in which you can order the transmission of this information to the student, and you put in certain kinds of exercises, and you do this, and you do that, and then what will come out at the end is the student will have learned. It's quite a planned sort of approach to the design of instruction.
Another way of looking at it is that you're designing for the facilitation of learning. This allows for a more student-oriented approach, compatible with the constructivist approach to learning, compatible with a dialogic approach to how knowledge is generated and negotiated, instead of that rather planned instructivist transmission model, which has been around in instructional design.
LN: What you're saying is similar to what Don Norman said in his recent eLearn interview—that the focus should be on how learning can be enhanced through an emphasis on "flow" and emotion.
DL: I entirely agree with that, you can't approach e-learning the way you approach writing a book or giving a lecture. It's not a presentational mode of learning. It's about exploiting the capabilities of technology. There are two forms of interaction technology supports. One is the interactivity between people—through conferencing, through capturing dialogue, through analyzing the dialogue once it's been captured, and making that available to other people. And so it supports and facilitates the dialogic part of what goes in learning.
LN: What do you think the role of a teacher should be in e-learning?
DL: Any individual academic has two quite distinct roles. One is as the expert facilitating the independent learning of their students by generating the materials with which students interact. Your subject matter expertise and teaching experience go into creating a superb environment for independent learning by any number of students. The other role is as mentor to a small group of students, where you're encouraging them, you're negotiating knowledge, you're debating, you're responding to their questions, you're commenting on their work—built around the learning environments and learning resources which you helped to create.
LN: How can one judge when e-learning is successful?
DL: You need to look at what actually happens to the students, their reaction to it, their perception of it, the way they actually respond as they're learning, and what they're capable of doing once they've gone through an hour or ten hours of this learning—that's the real challenge. Are you actually delivering on that? Are you doing something different than they would get from reading a book or sitting in a lecture class? E-learning has to be judged by how well it supports the students and the quality of their learning.
LN: What do you think about some of the new technologies that are cropping up, such as the newest synchronous technologies?
DL: I find the high-quality synchronous technologies extraordinarily interesting. They are capable of transforming the distance learning experience for students. You've got debate and the excitement and energy of immediate discussion. One of the difficulties with distance learning is being able to convey that sense of vicarious excitement that an expert has.
However the use of synchronous technologies will be limited because synchronicity necessarily can only be feasible really with a small group of individuals. You can't do that on a mass basis, except in transmission mode, just like broadcasting really.
LN: What do you think about some of the innovative technologies such as automating responses to students, or using agents who look over your shoulder as you're going through a course?
DL: Being able to predict what students are actually going to need at any particular time as they're working through material is extremely difficult. It's a difficulty that intelligent tutoring systems ran into, of being able to codify and formalize our understanding of the learning process to such an extent that you can actually make meaningful intrusions or interruptions in their learning process.
I think the easy way to go is not to try to be the tutor, but rather to create an adaptive environment, rather like a game, which creates the conditions in which you learn. So if you imagine trying to teach people French, you could create a simulation game in which you're getting characters to do things, and in order to manipulate the game you've got to be able to understand and interpret what they're saying. You would learn under those conditions in a way that would be completely different from learning under tutor-guided conditions. We've got to understand the relationship between what different kinds of learning environments offer and the best way to design them that support students in a cost-effective way.
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