The world of 'e-learning' is growing more pervasive every day. But critics are asking whether the medium is being used to its best advantage - and some warn of a growing digital divide.
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Learning vocabulary by cell phone? Teaching a classroom of kids on the Internet? Exams via videoconference? All these methods are already in practice, part of the growing field of e-learning.
Increasingly, schools and colleges are experimenting with ways to use modern technology to improve virtual education. Some students are meeting their teachers in chat rooms instead of classrooms. Others get vocabulary lists sent automatically to their cell phones once a week. And archaeology students at Britain's University of Leicester are studying antiquity by using a virtual-world game - Second Life - to reconstruct ancient societies.
Online learning is popular among students who also work
Colleges and universities seem especially motivated to make use of the new possibilities that modern technology has to offer. This goes particularly for universities that want to accommodate working students who are short on time.
But some critics wonder whether online educators are doing enough to use all the possibilities for extending the classroom. E-learning often lacks creativity, they argue, saying it mostly consists of taped lectures being posted online.
Ulrike Tipp, a professor of commercial information technology at the Wildau Polytechnic University near Berlin, argues that in order for digital educators to be successful, they need to think outside the box.
For too long, she said, the focus has been purely on technology.
"That means that we've gotten to the point where we think that when the technology is working then everything is fine," Tipp said. "But technology alone doesn't do it. And that's what we've seen. Many teaching platforms were empty platforms. Meaning that no one was really moved to use them. You have to ask why that is."
Teaching social skills, remotely
One could question whether or not students really want to have vocabulary lists sent to their cell phones - after all, mobile phones are associated more with fun and entertainment than with learning. What's more, a boring professor can't be rendered interesting just by virtue of watching him give a lecture online instead of live.
But another thing that has been largely missing up to now in the e-learning world is a social component, Tipp argues. Certain skills, such as how to communicate and how to present oneself, aren't currently being taught in the virtual world. So digital learning has been geared towards information exchange rather than cooperative learning.
It seems like that is soon to change, however. "We are moving more and more toward instituting collaborative learning, where students exchange ideas," Tipp said. "It's the same principle as in the Web 2.0 communities, and it is leading to some interesting collaborations."
Some experts, disappointed by the unfulfilled potential of the media, are now shifting the focus away from e-learning and on to a concept they call "blended learning;" that's where technology is used as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching. What remains to be seen is whether students will actually take to some of the methods that are being offered.
Digital haves vs. have-nots
Another issue that worries critics when it comes to e-learning is the apparent "digital divide" that is opening up between those who have access to high-speed connections and pricy technology, and those who do not.
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Granted, digital media is no longer only available to Web designers and computer technicians. But even for those who do, or could, have access, there is still often a gap between people who are comfortable using new technologies and those who are not.
"There is a problem of digital exclusion," said e-learning expert Graham Attwell, who currently teaches at the University of Bremen. "And there is the problem of digital illiteracy, which continues to grow."
Indeed, the European Union has set itself a goal of becoming a "digital single market" (i.e., having universal broadband access) by 2013. Some member states, like Sweden and the Netherlands, have all but reached that goal. Others, like Britain, have further to go.
The problem is worse for those in developing countries who don't have access to the needed hardware, software or electricity, Attwell argued. For them, a dangerous education gap could be opening.
He proposes some solutions to these problems, including making mobile technology less expensive; and installing free high-speed WLAN connections in educational institutions and public administration buildings.
Author: Andrea Lueg, Daniela Siebert (jen)
Editor: Kate Bowen