Opinion: online learning was seen by many as having the potential to change education radically, but this has not come to pass chiefly because the need and desire for change was not fully explored or articulated

This autumn, you may have seen your child start school with a shiny tablet. Your teenager may have left for university with a slim new laptop. You yourself may have enrolled on a part-time course, accessing digital resources and staying in touch through your phone or computer.

Education at all levels has changed in the digital age, but transformation has been slow. Arguably, it has focused more on the practical and administrative functions of education than the educational experience itself. Schools can ensure the note sent home is always received because it is sent by text or app. Heavy books have been replaced with handheld devices. Libraries have experienced a digital revolution, enabling users search global research databases, and access rare material in high quality digital formats. Universities can provide off-campus registration and access to course materials.

But how much change has really happened? And why has higher education struggled to embrace online learning?

There have been many examples of failure or limited success with technology in education. Unused electronic whiteboards, over-reliance on PowerPoint, the on-going construction of lecture theatres: we see very little changing in the way education is done. Research shows an observable trend from hype to disappointment: each new technology is lauded as the answer to our educational problems, but fails to deliver. Is it worth investing time and money in e-learning if it is not going to result in change?

In the early 2000s, we have heard of the imminent demise of the university campus, the benefits of flexible attendance and the breaking down of barriers to participation in higher education, all possible with e-learning. Moreover, transformation would be essential to the survival of the university, with confident online citizens expecting flexibility and extensive use of technology in their learning.

But by the mid-2000s, the conversation had changed. Research texts talk about myth, thwarted ambitions and broken promises. In 2017, the physical campus is surviving – and indeed thriving. Students are still moving away from home (which brings its own challenges for towns and cities). Teaching and learning in campus-based higher education are gradually moving away from the traditional lecture format, but they are not moving online. Rather, there is a blend of the new with the old and, often, a somewhat uneasy accommodation of technology with existing practices.

What has led to this scenario? It is now clear that in the early 2000s, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers all regarded online learning as having the potential to change education radically – perhaps this was education’s equivalent of the dotcom bubble.

With hindsight, we can see that the need and desire for change had not been fully explored or articulated. Exactly what kind of change was desired and why – was it to generate revenue, or remove barriers to participation? How much change would be enough? How widely shared was the vision for change within our institutions? Crucially, change was associated with the technology itself. This perspective neglected the complexity of universities as organisations, and the existing practices into which new technologies were being introduced.

We have focused too much on the technology in isolation – its features and capacities – rather than seeing how it integrates – or not – with practice.

Teaching and learning are critically important existing practices in any third level institution. But those teaching have tended to be sceptical about new technology, with justification: they are not usually given additional time for this work or for the development of appropriate e-learning materials and activities. Lecturers are also concerned that technology contributes to plagiarism, student distraction, and poor attendance in class. A limited number of the tools included in mainstreamed campus learning environments such as BlackBoard, Moodle and Canvas are used by lecturers. These systems often serve as content repositories for lecture notes. Therefore, a clear vision for the use of new technologies is still needed in most institutions, along with intensive support and help for lecturers learning to use technology effectively.

A reliable evidence base might also help convince people of the potential benefits of e-learning, but research has needed time to evolve and has not offered consistent findings. More recently, researchers have focused on technology as part of practice, rather than seeing it in isolation. This kind of work appears to offer more fruitful paths towards understanding exactly why people use certain tools, and also why they don’t. The learning experience in a campus-based university is completely different to that in an open and distance institution such as the UK’s Open University.

We might therefore not expect online debate amongst our campus-based students, whereas this might be a requirement of participation in an Open University course. We also know now that the students we regard as digital natives need time and support to develop digital literacies. We needed to develop better research frameworks, using alternative theoretical frameworks and methods to better understand how learners and teachers use technology in practice. It is encouraging to see larger scale studies emerging, including one here in Ireland which has built a dataset of students’ use of online learning environments over nearly a decade.

We still need to know much more about technology as a mediator of human activities. We have focused too much on the technology in isolation – its features and capacities – rather than seeing how it integrates – or not – with practice.

Rather than falling prey to the hype associated with each new tool, and anticipating that it will transform our campuses, we need to ask better questions: how do new technologies interact with planned teaching events, scaffold learners engaging with higher education (perhaps for the first time), and provide a "third space" between classroom, work and home? How can technology allow learners and those teaching them to negotiate what they will do when they next meet in person?

Finding the answers will offer a way out of the cycle of hype and disappointment, and presents an exciting challenge to all working in education.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ