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E-Learning: The Retrieval of Past Practices

Retrieval means we are recovering the use of something or bringing it back. Marshall McLuhan explored the idea that new technologies often retrieve past practices. In other words, in spite of the introduction of new technologies we often find ourselves doing the same old thing. More simply, there is a tendency to use the new to do the old. E-Learning is a primary example of how new media serve to retrieve past practice and entrench it deeper into our sensibilities. The past practices retrieved in e-Learning are traditional notions of curriculum and instructional design. In summary, e-Learning like education is a system of mass communication...

E-Learning in 1940

In Because Wisdom Can't Be Told (Or read Online) [via Robert Paterson] Naish Michani links the modes and methods of traditional classroom practice to those of e-Learning. He references an article written in 1951 by Charles Gragg that describes the pitfalls of lecture-based teaching and concludes that:

After reading the article, I linked it to the state of e-learning today and realised that nothing much has changed since 1940. What Gragg strongly argued against back then is in vogue today; the only difference is that it is taking place online. If Gragg were to write his article today, he would have strongly condemned both the telling and the reading of wisdom as it occurs today both in the classroom and online.

What Naish is focused on here is the idea of retrieval. We can retrieve examples prior to 1940 and still be able to make the same statement. E-Learning is not fundamentally innovative in concept or practice since it fails to challenge the underlying assumptions of curriculum and instructional design. In other words, e-Learning is a direct extension of the concept of the prerequisite.

e-Learning: A Failure In Design

How do we become more aware of retrieval? One part of the asnwer to this question lies in becoming more aware of what McLuhan called the "seductive" aspects of new media. We are often seduced by technology that appears to be new. Our initial tendency is to become attracted to the surface appearance. A great deal of e-Learning design has been focused on surface, or superficial, design ideas while the underlying assumptions and structure of that design originate in 1940 (or before).

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior. - Marshall McLuhan

It seems that "interface designers" are more focused on fashion and appearance than strategy and innovation. Changing the surface appearance of a technology has little to do with innovation. E-Learning is simply curriculum and instructional under the fashionable guise of interface design. The fact that e-Learning has been used as a tool to replace certain classroom functions is a clear indication of retreival and entrenchment. E-Learning is a 1940's design idea under the guise of a new electronic fashion.

E-Experience: E-Learning, E-Walking and E-Backpacking

Probe: E-Learning does not exist.

One of the most effective probes a designer can use to elevate their capacity for design is to assume that e-Learning does not exist. In doing so we are in a position to stand outside of the more seductive aspects of the technology. At a very simplistic level, e-Learning is a term used to refer to a collection of digital media used to support education and training endeavours. Beyond this, the term "e-Learning" makes no sense and therefore has no real value.

e-Walking would refer to a collection of digital media used to support walking. e-Backpacking would refer to a collection of digital media used top support backbacking. Digital media result in some kind of physical amputation from a much richer direct experience. Few of us would be interested in e-Walking and e-Backpacking since the e-Experience is bland in comparison to the actual experience. I suppose in technophile terms actual experience would really be a-Experience.

E-Profiteering: The Commerce of e-Learning

E-Learning has become a means to build a revenue stream or reduce budgetary expenses. It is an article of commerce, a product, a service, a system of trade. Inside a corporation e-Learning is a tool to help businesses reduce training costs. Inside an education system e-Learning is also a tool for expense reduction by means of accomodating more students in a single course and reducing the need to hire more faculty. It is a way of dealing with more and more students while providing them with fewer and fewer meaningful resources.

Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort. - Marshall McLuhan

Of course, the marketing department in corporations and education systems will tell another story. The surface appearance of this story is one of new and innovative learning tools that provide greater access to more people. The underlying structure of this story is that of propaganda and in some cases conscious deception. This is an example of retrieval as well.


  • e-Learning Design
  • Stephen Downes: e-Learning 2.0"

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