E-Learning: From the Computer to the Classroom

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“I never teach my pupils;
I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”.

Albert Einstein’s words quoted above posit a message for all educators. Many of us have grown up with the chalk and blackboard form of pedagogy and are most comfortable teaching, in the same way.  But is this the best way to engage students or provide a learning environment most suited to learners? There is no substitute, while teaching a subject like mathematics, to the old-fashioned chalk and board technique, but are there ways and means by which we can blend this with methods that use newer technologies in a meaningful way?

For instance, the chalk and board method fails when you have to explain curves and figures in 3-dimension to students. Unless one is a good artist, translating equations representing three-dimensional objects into visual pictures is next to impossible. This is however achievable with not too much difficulty using the aid of mathematical software and a computer. The returns for the student, as well as the teacher are truly rewarding.

Imagine discussing a piece of modern poetry in the class and being able to play an audio of the poet rendering the poem.  Better still a movie of an interview with her that explains the contexts and brings to light meanings hidden in verse. This could be followed by a classroom discussion of the poem.  One step further, in a highly IT-enabledi classroom, the poet could be available online to participate in the discussion. These exciting possibilities could be fact rather than fiction.

Most academics that collaborate with colleagues in different parts of the globe are well aware of the possibilities that have opened up due to the use of the internet. Instant accesses to electronic databases for papers, search engines that locate articles and references in seconds, e-books and material that are available freely, are but a few examples of the bounty that the net has brought the academic community.  Where we have not yet made inroads in India is to harness the immense potential of the Net towards creating good e-learning systems. E-Learning is the term broadly used to describe learning methods that use electronic media, information and communication technology and the internet.

For universities it is important to think of e-learning within the context or realm of classroom teaching. This is called blended learning.  While creating e-learning material at the University of Delhi to support some of the undergraduate courses, regular workshops were conducted with teachers to share with them the material that was being created. One worry that several teachers expressed was that if the material for a particular paper was freely available on the net, then students would stop attending classes.

Blended learning is the platform that both allays this fear as well as attracts students back to the classroom. The course on `Mathematical Awareness’ included biographical sketches of the mathematicians Emmy Noether and Srinivasa Ramanujan. Biographies tend to be regarded as a boring collection of facts that students feel impelled to memorise. Emmy Noether’s biographical sketch began with a movie clip. The voice-over talked about an exhibition that took place in 1964 in New York City titled `World’s Fair’ and a 13 feet long poster titled `Men of Modern Mathematics’ in the mathematics hall. This poster was a mathematical timeline poster covering a period from 1000 CE to 1950 CE with historical and biographical vignettes and many pictures. The title `Men of Modern Mathematics’ was particularly apt as the only woman entrant in the poster was Emmy Noether. Below are two photographs. The first picture below is a still from the movie clip; the inset in it is a photograph of Emmy Noetherii. In the second picture (below) we see Emmy with her brothers.

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Indeed, the rest of the presentation on Emmy was a biography through pictures taking the students through various vignettes from her life.

The pictorial biography of Ramanujan began with a rock song whose lyrics presented a précis of his life. The presentation played the rock song (freely available for download on the net and licensed for remixing and reuse), with the lyrics showing on the screen. This sparked the interest of the students immediately and so much so that students who had missed the presentation requested for a repeat class.

Globally, many Universities use Learning Management Systems (LMS) of one type or the other to present their e-courses on dedicated websites. There are many LMS that are open sourceiii and are freely available for installation. MOODLEiv  is one such system, which was developed by a doctoral student from Australia. Any LMS should be seen as a framework or the underpinning within which e-material is presented. The freely available LMS can be customized to suit the needs of a particular institution, in terms of both appearance and content.

To some extent, the LMS automatically brings in uniformity in terms of presentation. However, it is important to inform and familiarise e-content developers about the LMS that will be used. With this knowledge, content developers can visualise and adapt the written material, pictures, videos, audios, animations and quizzes to easily fit the LMS framework. The templates provided by the LMS just need to be filled in with the content.

The image of the LMS should be one of a cupboard with designated shelves and spaces, into which the course content is placed. If the developer has no knowledge of the templates then it will require a large amount of post writing production work and long timelines before the material is available to the learner. Many universities have customised templates and frameworks that academics can easily fill themselves with course material. In others like the Open University, UK, there are dedicated teams that take care of various steps. This is done with coordination at every step. The mode that a University chooses depends on its needs and costs. At the University of Delhi, yet another path has been chosen, that of out-sourcing the task of creating the on-line content: written material and audio-visual material, to its own teachers.

While sourcing material, a content developer needs to be aware of copyright issues. The copyright information for material sourced from the web is usually given on the webpage itself. For example, if it says that the photograph or image is in the public domain then it can be used freely. Generally `copyleft’ licensing like Creative Commons Licensing or GNU Licensing allows one to use and change or customize the material provided there is acknowledgement of source and author. In other cases it would say with whom the copyright vests, permission must then be sought from the individual or institution.

While publishing books, great attention is paid to references, acknowledgement of sources for photos and copyright, but there is often a laxity displayed for e-versions. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that almost anyone can `publish e-material’. For institutions, such carelessness can prove to be a grave mistake and can lead to long drawn out legal wrangles. The need for meticulous referencing, acknowledgement of sources should be made clear to content developers before they begin.

There are some inherent advantages that e-learning platforms provide. It is very easy to update and change material depending on the needs of a particular course or class. The e-medium lends itself very easily to creating learner-centric methods of pedagogy. For example, it is very easy to create several levels within the same topic, and attach quizzes at each level. A student can then pace her learning. She moves to the next higher level only after scoring satisfactorily in the attached quiz. Quizzes themselves can carry difficulty tags or tags that tell a student about the kind of learning that is being tested. This may range from simple reproduction of material learnt, or an application based on the material or a higher order thinking question. The most important aspect is that the student can decide his or her own pace.

In India, there is still a wide gap between the reality and possibility as far as e-learning is concerned. At both institutional and individual levels, speed and stability of internet connections leave a lot to be desired. This can create a problem for any centralised dispensation of e-content. However, until these problems are surmounted technology does exist to create local hubs for disseminating e-content.

From being a novice with just the ability to send e-mails, any time spent creating e-content leaves one unafraid to embrace new technology. Once one gets beyond the initial fear there is much satisfaction to be derived in blending technology with the never-to-be-replaced chalk and board teaching. The versatility and abundance of available technology is chiefly responsible for the innovative practices that e-learning brings with it. Transforming sound classroom teaching to an experience that stimulates the brain in manifold ways is not just a necessity in the years to come but is also rewarding in myriad ways.

Notes

  1. Here IT-enabled means a classroom with a laptop connected to the internet with a projection facility that would allow the entire class to access the media shown on the laptop. Highly IT-enabled would mean each student having access to an internet enabled computer with audio and video software that would permit online group discussions.
  2. The inset photograph of Emmy Noether and the photograph of Emmy with her brothers are courtesy the archives of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach.
  3. Open source is a term that is broadly used to describe software whose source code is made public for others to use and modify as long as the modified version is again freely available. This usually creates a large community of users that upgrade and fix the problems in the software and distribute it freely.
  4. MOODLE is the acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. The Open University UK uses a customised MOODLE for its VLE. Many Universities world-wide use versions of MOODLE.

Works Cited

  1. Glaz Sarah & Growney JoAnne (ed), Strange Attractors: poems of love and mathematics, AK Peters Ltd, 2008.
  2. Kannigel Robert, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Rupa & Co., Delhi 1992.
  3. Rock song on Ramanujan: http://www.archive.org/details/Ramanujan
  4. Rudestan Kjell Erik & Schoenholtz-Read Judith (ed), Handbook of Online Learning (2nd edition), Sage Publications, Inc, 2010.

Geetha Venkataraman is a Professor at the School of Undergraduate Studies,  Ambedkar University, Delhi.

* Article first published in FORTELL Sep 2010.

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