e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: A literature review

Publication Details

This e-Learning literature review examined texts across a range of countries, but within a relatively short time frame of the preceding five years. A range of criteria were used to select or eliminate studies for closer review (see Methodology and Methods section). Some key terms are defined for the purpose of this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordances, Web 2.0.

Author(s): Noeline Wright, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, School of Education, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 7: Conclusion

This review has examined and defined some key terms in the light of the guiding research questions. It has also examined some international and national literature in the field of e-Learning and outcomes as they relate to schooling. Unpublished texts (such as theses), national policy documents, journal articles and websites have been reviewed. Key sorting mechanisms related to the age of texts (mainly within the past five years), their context (schooling rather than tertiary contexts), and country of origin were also used to narrow the field.

Benefits

To summarise, benefits to school learners with access to e-Learning affordances, include:

Motivation and engagement: Stevenson's (2008) thesis identified Web 2.0 affordances as being useful here. These same affordances involve the social networking practices common among girls, and being harnessed by boys as well. Connecting in groups is also a feature often attributed to Maori and Pasifika learners and so including social networking practices in classrooms may support their learning (Ako Aotearoa, 2008; Franken et al., 2005). The tools which support motivation and engagement, as well as co-constructive pedagogies can also be factors in powerful learning that meet students' needs in a range of contexts and at a range of stages of learning, including ESL and physical disability.

Independence and personalised learning: personalising learning can mean students are more motivated to continue engaging in learning because they can more readily access support when it is needed. Some 2009 e-Learning fellows' experiences through their blogs demonstrates this well. Claire Amos's blog, documenting using blogs for developing student writing, is a case in point. She commented that students regularly read each other's postings as a means of developing their own work, and even when they lost notebooks, their online work was still available (My e-Learning Fellowship Journal). Web 2.0 applications (such as blogs), mobile devices, IWBs and other equipment can be useful in supporting personalised learning, as well as students' existing knowledge of online socialisation protocols which can help them successfully navigate online relationships (Lewin, Mavers & Somekh, 2003; Lewin, Somekh, & Steadman, 2008; Wan et al., 2008).

Critical thinking and multiliteracies: these features point to the importance of student-centred pedagogies that allow students to engage with multiple texts, collaborate with others and develop deep understanding. These pedagogies imply the development of metacognitive strategies that support students being able to access prior knowledge, interact with other people and various kinds of texts, create meaning and produce evidence of this new knowledge. The kinds of learning processes, contexts, literacies and media predicted by the New London Group (Cazden et al., 1996) are particularly important for e-Learning classrooms because they closely link to the kinds of co-constructive and socially mediated learning that technological tools appears to foster.

Access to information, resources and experts: this is one of the strengths of e-Learning affordances, because they make information and knowledge quickly and flexibly accessible. Students can manipulate and navigate such texts in various ways that suit how they might prefer to work. These texts (whether electronic, written or human) can be interpreted, analysed and reformed by learners, because the technologies exist which allow them to mash and mod the texts, creating new ones for real, but cyber audiences. In these ways, students can become producers and publishers of their own texts.

Collaboration in wide contexts, including international ones: Stevenson's (2008) thesis discusses such arrangements. The ongoing production of student podcasts and integration of other e-Learning technologies at Pt England School, also point to the power of international collaboration and audiences in motivating students to learn. It appears that this kind of learning centres on the motivators of relevance, purpose, context, immediacy, audience, creativity, collaboration and pliability for students. In turn, such regular and integrated access to these technologies, enhance more traditional skill development such as literacy and numeracy (Burt, 2007). In these kinds of contexts, students are learning about, with and through technology. This has positive impact on their social, cognitive and affective domains (Falloon, 2004).

Some conditions which lead to positive outcomes include: the role of the teacher, the types of pedagogy used in technologically able classrooms, and the ubiquity of access to technology for everyone concerned. These presuppose effective leadership at a variety of levels within a school - teachers' professional development and mentoring, technical support, provision of equipment, and a drive to support e-Learning as fundamental aspect of classroom learning. It may also affect the way timetables are constructed, especially in secondary schools.

Cautions

The hype about e-Learning must be tempered with evidence about what works and how it works; some of that evidence is shaky, and may not withstand the consequences of the Hawthorne Effect over time. Some of the evidence used in this review relies on specific proprietary tools such as IWBs in classrooms. However, these can also demonstrate positive learning outcomes over time (Lewin, Somekh, & Steadman, 2008) when coupled with co-constructive pedagogies. Thus, teachers' pedagogic actions may be prime indicator of successful integration of technological tools into learning opportunities. This points to how important it is for teachers to actively engage with facilitating the use of such tools; merely having them will not lead to improved learning.

In terms of the potential of mobile devices to support learning in creative and just-in-time ways, there is still a long way to go. This is still in its infancy, and teachers wanting to use such tools must overcome both schools' reluctance to actively use such tools as part of learning, and concerns about theft, cyber bullying and access to objectionable sites.

Other cautions include assumptions around the availability of high-quality broadband/wifi access, and the extent to which students can be expected to retain high levels of motivation and engagement when e-Learning becomes normalised.

A final caution relates to teachers' attitudes and beliefs regarding technological tools. Evidence exists that teachers who use digital tools to replace older technology, but use them without altering their pedagogy, will have minimal effects on learning. For example, teachers who use presentation software to replace overhead transparencies, and continue to lecture, soon find that students tire of the novelty because their role in the classroom remains the same ("e-Learning Pedagogy," n.d.). Essentially, nothing will have changed for learners if they remain passive recipients of knowledge and information, even if the tools the teachers use are novel. The combination of technology and more student-centred, facilitative pedagogies appear to be at the heart of effective e-Learning in classrooms.

Limitations and gaps

Some limitations of the study have already been alluded to: the timeline, the scope and aspects of the methodology. There are also gaps in this review. It did not, for example, address the following vis a vis e-Learning in much or any substantive detail:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity or disability
  • Specific differences between primary and secondary
  • Student voice
  • Language (first language versus second/third languages)
  • Teacher knowledge and professional development.

These gaps exist in this review because few of the texts either deliberately focus on these areas of interest in the relevant time period, or also address 'outcomes'. These are therefore areas of interest to future research in the arena of e-Learning and outcomes.

Summary

This e-Learning literature review has attempted to demonstrate the extent to which these following questions can be answered:

  • What is the nature of existing evidence linking e-Learning to improved learning outcomes for students in primary and secondary schools?
  • What teaching and learning practices maximise (any) benefits of using e-Learning?

In terms of the first question, this review suggests that if 'outcomes' is understood to include wider social, cognitive and affective effects, then it is possible to say that e-Learning affordances have a positive effect on outcomes. The nature of the existing evidence indicates that when good teaching occurs in tandem with appropriate e-Learning technologies, then students are more likely to benefit and be able to work and learn in ways that feel more natural to them. The available evidence also points to a greater focus on specific tools rather than the teaching and learning processes by which they are successfully used. The body of literature about the ways IWBs can enhance learning is a case in point. There is also a growing literature on Web 2.0 affordances and mobile technologies, and the work of the 2009 e-Learning fellows demonstrate how these can be used to support students' growing confidence and skills as thinking citizens.

As far as practices that maximise e-Learning benefits, pedagogies which privilege collaboration, communication, sharing, problem-solving and risk-taking appear to lead to greater student engagement and sustained concentration – key aspects of achievement. They are also referred to most often in literature on e-Learning topics. These mainly co-constructive pedagogical practices appear to develop even when teachers have not deliberately included such approaches; this may be because they fit with students' preferred ways of using these technologies. The preponderance of social networking in young people's technological lives may also contribute to this way of learning, but this is an as yet untested hunch. And while many students are digital natives in the sense of being 'at home' with technology, they nevertheless are new to using these same tools educatively and beyond social or immediate purposes.

It is still the role of the teacher to harness these tools purposefully and to teach students to benefit from using these ubiquitous tools for learning. A key component of effective learning is the development of critical thinking and metacognition. These go hand in hand with effective literacy practices in schools, and integrating key components of programmes such as Te Kotahitanga to create the best possible conditions for students' learning. These points also bring into sharp relief the importance of the 'C' in ICT: communication (of ideas, concepts, methods, practices, knowledge) is a fundamental component of the kinds of pedagogies that link closely to embedded, integrated uses of e-Learning, and link to positive achievement outcomes for students over time.

Footnote

  1. These can be found at Past eFellowships on the CORE Education website.