by Carmine Marinucci and Stefano Epifani
An interview published on Learning Community
Roberto Maragliano: the person behind the on-line "Multimedialitą per l'e-learning" (Multimedia for e-Learning) and the web-based distance course "La scuola in rete" (The school on the Net), Professor of Education and Learning Technologies and Head of the Audiovisual Technology Laboratory at the University Roma. Prolific author of a wide range of reference texts in the on-line learning sector, including for 2004 alone the updated version of the "Nuovo Manuale di didattica multimediale" ("New Manual of Multimedia Teaching") and "Pedagogie dell e-Learning" ("e-Learning teaching approaches"), both published by Laterza we also asked him what the state of the art was as regards on-line learning.
Professor Maragliano, a seemingly prosaic question: does e-Learning really work? And, if it does, why is the drop-out rate for on-line training courses so alarmingly high?
I could throw the question back at you and ask: does traditional/classroom teaching really work? And how good are the outcomes? What is the drop-out rate? The problem is that we have now got to the stage where, for the vast majority of human activity, be it material (or with material effects) or "spiritual" (so to speak), the Net is here to stay. There can therefore be no question, particularly when it comes to learning, of giving up this resource, and to indulge in doubts or negative uncertainties in this regard is a luxury we cannot afford. Particularly as the linchpin in learning continues to be the book, about which you can say whatever you like but not that it is dependent upon to the notion of "presence": where is the author of the book used by the student to study while he/she studies and where is the teacher who chose that book while the student is using it to study? Admittedly the comparatively high drop-out rate for on-line courses is a problem. This is! an undeniable fact but something that has to be elaborated on. And this cannot be done by ignoring other facts: e.g. that often on-line courses are not good, and are merely the mechanical transposition on-line of resources designed for other media; that many pupils are still comparatively unfamiliar with the Net; that many (on the delivery side) think that the Net is nothing more than a convenient and low-cost solution for producing and distributing learning material and (on the recipient side) a fantastic opportunity to receive texts, pictures and sounds directly on to one's desktop. The list could go on. But the real potential of the Net lies elsewhere. Identifying and tapping this potential would be tantamount to creating different expectations in relation to the use of the Net for learning purposes.
When we talk about e-Learning, the conversation often moves on to subjects such as "platforms", "standardisation formats", "protocols". No one would deny that the role of technology is important, but do you not feel that there is a risk of the learning side being overshadowed by technology?"
You have a point. The machine is being delegated a problem which is and remains primarily a teaching problem. But there is more to it than that. In any platform there is a more or less inherent training intent, an underlying pedagogical aspect. It therefore makes little sense to discuss standardisation, protocols or platforms, if this pedagogical aspect is not taken on board at the same time. For instance, as things currently stand, the production/distribution of learning objects has taken on mythological proportions, suggesting a "transparent" future in which the Net will be able to place the universe of knowledge at everyone's disposal by making available an infinite variety of building blocks to be assembled at will. Maybe, but are we sure that this objective is plausible, acceptable and desirable in teaching approaches, that due account should not also be taken of the "darker" elements which will inevitably cast a shadow over the "transparent" elements ! (and therefore of the close relationship between informal learning, non-formal learning and formal learning)? Is this really what we want, a Net in which all the learning objects are blurred? And, again, should it be up to the technician to tell me, the teacher, how to present content, to me, the author, how to organise it? or will it be possible to find an appropriate technical solution for my way of setting things out and writing? And, more generally speaking, will it be up to the engineers to tell us how to assess on-line courses and their impact in terms of learning? And if so, and they are already doing it, what pedagogical yardsticks will they use?
What does developing an e-Learning "pedagogical approach" mean and why, in your latest book, do you use the word in the plural?
For the reasons given to the previous question. Because in any technical solution there is a teaching option. Whatever the number of solutions you have an equal number of options. This is why I use the word in the plural. But there is more to it than that. It can happen that when moving on-line new prospects open up, new pedagogical problems, hitherto unknown or not completely identified. This explains the use of the plural. All the pointers argue for the plural rather than the singular. For now, let us simply say that e-Learning is a practical advantageous solution, but to a problem of which we do not yet know the full extent. We are just starting out on this: we have answers but we do not yet know the questions to which they are the answers. We mistakenly think sometimes that on-line training is a virtual version of traditional/classroom teaching. Far from it. It is something completely different, exactly like on-line commerce which is more than and different from the ! virtual version of "real" commerce: by getting to know it and using it we realise that it is not only a special and temporal extension of "on-the-ground" commerce, but also a community, a club and therefore a forum for meetings, discussions, debates, where we go not only to make purchases put also to meet people, make friends, identify with others. Paradoxically, it could be maintained that the human factor is larger in virtual shopping than in real shopping. What's the betting that before long someone will try to make the same claim for on-line learning? Who will then rise to the defence (at university, for instance) of lessons in halls crowded with 300 students, the examination factories, the arduous nature of direct teacher/student dialogues, i.e. "the live scene".
When planning on-line multimedia learning pathways, is it enough to think of the Net as a new medium for traditional teaching, or do we need to radically rethink teaching processes in their entirety?
It should not be too hard to understand from what I have said so far that I would opt for the second solution. Virtualisation revolutionises our relationship with "reality". The text, pictures, sounds at our fingertips do not diminish but rather enhance our opportunities to interpret, intervene in and interact with reality. The same goes for digitalisation. It does not diminish, but intensifies and makes our approach to the teaching process more complex. On-line education, when it reaches maturity, will be a boon to traditional/classroom education, of that I am convinced: it will help it to be more flexible, network-orientated and "open" than has been managed so far. This simulation implies that what we hitherto perceived as compact and inseparable be broken down and made subject to a system-based logic: in which case, how many teaching functions will we discover within and around the traditional teacher? How many learning methods will we gradually identify over ! and above those which are part of our traditions? e-Learning is not traditional classroom education without a classroom. It would be more correct to say that traditional classroom education is more often than not a non-virtualised and non-virtualisable form of education, and therefore limited, without the resources for conceptualisation, and comparatively unproblematic.
How do "traditional" teachers feel about the new ways of providing learning? And what changes in their profession with the advent of e-Learning?
A lot changes, but above all there is a change of perspective. The relationship with the student changes. The student ceases to be a single, autonomous virgin reality in relation to what is to be learned, but is integrated within a group, in which motives and knowledge intermesh, a process in which the things learned are an intrinsic part of it. The relationship with learning resources changes and these are no longer separated from one another but linked or can be linked within a network perspective. There is a change of focus in the action. The focus is no longer only on the teaching and its organisation but also and particularly on the learning process and its individual and group dynamics. This is enough to disorientate the "traditional" teacher. I myself feel that this disorientation can become a salutary factor if it is appropriately analysed and channelled. One conditio sine qua non however: first of all the "traditional" teacher must become familiar with t! he Net and take it on board, not for professional reasons or because a minister has so decreed, but for personal reasons. The computer must first become a personal affair, an instrument to be used to broaden the mind, to cultivate one's interests, to interact with others, to play, and indeed, to some extent, to "live". At that point it can and will naturally become a teaching resource for the individual teacher.
In the relationship between teachers and technology, in your address on Telma a few years ago, you spoke of an endeavour by teachers to "tame the beast" referring to the attempt to bring the Net within known and traditional parameters rather than take teaching models the way of the Net. Have things changed since then? Has the beast been tamed or has it gained the upper hand?
It is impossible to tame the beast, because it has been assimilated by the minds and bodies of our young people. Shut it up in a laboratory if you like, but every time a young person touches it the genie will be out of the bottle again. And then the traditional teacher, who mistakenly thinks it can all be done with an hour of informatics and controlled transition into the clinical environment of a laboratory, will find himself on the spot. This is why I am opposed to an ecological approach to the new media: I would speak rather of an ethological approach, which allows the machines/beasts to give their best within their natural environments. School and university must make an effort to become, as far as that is possible, natural environments for the use of the new (alongside the old) media.
Your colleague Mario Morcellini of the La Sapienza University claims that the inertia of the institutions and the lack of a policy to overcome cultural barriers are among the main obstacles to the development of on-line learning. Would you agree?
Yes I would, but the institutions are the people in them. Change the people and you change the institutions, too. For the time being these people, I mean those involved in teaching, are reluctant to change. There is also a "generational" factor: we are moving in an ageing society which views with suspicion and aggressiveness young people and their world. It may be a question of jealousy. I do not know. What I do know is that young people do not get "good press" and therefore anything to do with them likewise does not receive good press. Hardly the sign of a healthy society, I would say. But the debate, I acknowledge, is far too complex to be carried out here.
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