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E-learning – the latest trends

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Collaborative learning, teamworking and social media

Technology helping to scaffold and support teamworking, and create a sense of community, emerged as a key theme at ALT-C 2010. At the eLearning Africa 2010 conference a few months earlier, the first speaker was the Rt Rev Dr S. Tilewa Johnson, Anglican Bishop of Gambia, known as the Twittering Bishop.

Johnson delivered a rousing address on the online social education of young people, encouraging his audience to explore how digital technologies could help them stay in touch with African tradition and understand the changing needs of African youth (eLearning Africa, 2010).

is a site which collects articles and blog posts about e-learning: in August 2010, by far the most popular themes (approx. 80 per cent) were around social media and social learning. And the E-learning News blog (2010) listed social learning/informal learning (i.e. groups of individuals using new tools to collaborate and co-create content and generally work and learn together) as one of the key trends of 2009.

The key point emerging from recent research and case studies on the topic is that there is no one way of getting people to communicate or collaborate effectively. For each, the technological infrastructure needs to be thought through to match the needs of the community. This is the mantra of e-learning, that it is student-centred, enabling the individual or group to learn in a way that suits him/her or them.

Perhaps the best example of this lies in research done on a group outside higher education: a Dutch study of the information needs of knowledge workers (Bitter-Rijpkema and Verjans, 2010). Whereas the academic information needs of students can be structured with the confines of a virtual learning environment (with links to a library), those of knowledge workers are complex, fast moving and located not only in recognized sources of expertise such as databases, but also in people's heads.

There is therefore no one off-the-peg solution that meets all their requirements, they:

"need some of the safety, access control and predictable structure of an MLE [managed learning environment] with the personalisation, openness and flexibility offered by PLEs [personal learning environments]" (Bitter-Rijpkema and Verjans, 2010: p. 172).

Nor need the proposed solution be a complex one. Neumann et al. (2010) describe a project to use Google Docs as a collaborative tool. Google Docs is both freely available and easy to use, and thus neither incurs institutional cost nor offers barriers to use.


Blogging is a technology whose time has definitely come as far as e-learning, and indeed the whole academic community, is concerned.

In fact, learning to blog effectively is seen as an important skill for those seeking to enter the research community of practice. A study carried out at the Open University of the blogging habits of a group of postgraduate researchers over a four-year period (Ferguson et al., 2010), observed how the blogging changed from the first year of research to the completion of the doctorate and early-career researcher jobs.

The researchers moved from using blogs as a tool for reflection and collaboration, to a more atomized approach where ideas related to their research were hidden in dark or password-protected blogs (to prevent other researchers getting there first), while general discussion with the scholarly community was moved to more collaborative tools.

Blogging epitomizes the social nature of learning and knowledge, with bloggers and their respondents co-creating meaning. It is an excellent tool for academic dialogue – as Wheeler (2010) points out, it is much easier to express a contrary opinion to a blog than it is to an academic journal article.

The way in which the group studied by the OU used a combination of blogging and other media – Twitter for conferences, humour and references, communication tools such as Cloudworks, Google Docs and Google Wave for more serious research – illustrates a key new skill researchers must acquire: digital literacy.

They must be willing to learn about new tools such as Cloudworks (a type of collaborative blog, with members developing web pages or "clouds" for particular ideas or issues for discussion), and how best to exploit them.