Learning in the E(ye) of the Beholder

Although all teaching uses technology of some kind (like the abacus), that’s not what we mean when we talk about e-learning.

Social construction has been a popular topic in just about every graduate course I’ve taken. You can read a lot of highfalutin’ verbiage on the topic, but what it boils down to is that I have ideas about things I know about, and so do you, and even if your idea and my idea have similarities, they have differences, too, to the point that we might not be able to see anything in the same way, even if you wanted to. Silly example: good coffee. That phrase would probably elicit a dozen different ideas from a dozen different people, a few of whom might even argue such a thing doesn’t exist, like the unicorn.

“E-Learning at William & Mary”

Mentioning e-learning to people is likewise liable to elicit a lot of different ideas. Mention “e-learning at William & Mary” and that situation weights an already fuzzy topic with all the stakes of another: an older and more storied one, a proud and precious one, laced with tradition and values. The two might seem juxtaposed, the one impersonal as a glowing screen observed by a lone student, the other more like the warm glow of the Yule Log on the faces of a host of students. How can these things ever go together?

That’s a big topic these days, at least at the meetings I attend. Before last summer, I and others like me saw e-learning as a method, or a practice, or maybe a collection of resources (e.g., Blackboard, wikis, some servers, and the like). Because of the unfortunate events at UVA, however, this idea of e-learning became tinged with a little cloud of peril. The stakes surrounding e-learning became a little higher, a little more political. Awareness rose, too, as articles in newspapers and specialized pubs like the Chronicle have made e-learning a household word, especially around the higher education crowd. (Heck, I can see someone reading this blog and thinking, “e-learning, again?” Well, it’s certainly on our minds.)

As It Turns Out, E-Learning is Already Going on at William & Mary

But what is e-learning, really? Some may think of e-learning specifically, as in “distance education,” or as a new fad in education, or worse, merely a buzzword. As for me, I see it broadly, and I see e-learning going on at William & Mary every day. Blackboard is probably the most widely utilized example — we’re so used to it that it’s like the network, where no one really thinks of it unless there’s an outage. Wikis are another example; I wouldn’t want to have to tackle a collaborative writing assignment any other way, no matter how often the group meets in person. In short, to my mind any Internet resource that impacts teaching and learning is part of e-learning.

Of course, using a word like “impacts” begs the question of, “How?”  The idea of the William & Mary Experience includes a lot of face-to-face interaction with fellow students and professors, ideally in small groups, or even one-on-one — and isn’t e-learning a cold substitute for that? Well, sure it is, if you see it as a substitute. Another way to see it is as an augmentation. I would certainly rather meet with a class or study group in person, but there are times when I (or someone else) can’t, or it’s pouring rain, or I want to do my bit at 2 a.m. I’ve seen classes where an absent student was Skyped in or was included via Adobe Connect or viewed the recorded class later. The present students got to enjoy their traditional class, and the students who couldn’t be there certainly got a better experience than they would have borrowing someone’s notes — in the same kind of way that Blackboard makes the syllabus available online, but it’s still printable for those like me who keep a syllabus on the first page of a three-ring binder full of notes and papers.

To sum up, before I ramble you into slumber: I suppose I’m just trying to say that e-learning at William & Mary isn’t new, and it isn’t incompatible with our way of doing things. And while it very much depends on how you see it, e-learning at William & Mary is definitely not a unicorn.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.