ICT4ED: A solution in search of a problem? (part 1: the e-learning paradox)

When did product launches get to be such a big deal? My twitter feed and facebook timeline are cluttered with rumours of what the next iteration of favorite products will look like: “the iphone 8 will have hologram capability” or “amazon prime rumored to be experimenting with star trek transporters for faster delivery” or maybe “google may use cardboard box for latest augmented reality experience.” Oh wait – that last one actually happened. It seems a little over the top to me: all this promotional buzz for what is essentially a promotional event. Advertising for advertising – a bit much I think. Product launches have become the red carpet events for techies and geeks.

One recent launch caught my eye – that was the launch of Xbox one. It was pretty popular – so much so that they did not just have one launch but they had several, all over the world! I must say Microsoft really know how to self-promote. On the launch website, they even have a tweet generator that spits out promotional tweets for you to tweet to your followers with the click of a button. No really. I’m not making this up. It says “show us you’re ready” and then produces tweets like these: “The #XboxOne start-up sound may or may not be my new ringtone.” And “I would tweet a picture of my new #XboxOne if it didn’t require me to stop playing Xbox One for 3 minutes.” Or “There are only three things I need more than my new #XboxOne. I’m breathing one of them.” Ahhh Microsoft. I wonder what the other two are actually.

But this launch was special. I thought, finally someone GET’S IT! Microsoft really gets it! For the first time some Xbox one games will be backwardly compatible! You will still be able to play these games in earlier Xbox versions. WAY TO GO MICROSOFT!

Wait Microsoft – the evil empire – did something right? Something socially responsible? Well yes. That’s right – some Xbox one games will be backwardly compatible. Backwards compatibility in the tech field until now had become a quaint ideal of a bygone age.

OK – I hear the Linux devotees – Linux is still and always will be backwardly compatible. Yes I know, and that is one of the beauties of open-source: because they are not trying to get you to buy a new product, there is no business model driver to make your old product obsolete. Oh Snap! Moodle 2.xx you’re spoiling my open-source love in.

Yes I am being a bit mean – I understand that as you add new features to a product, older systems may not be able to support the new features. By the same token, as you create new efficient operating platforms, they afford you capabilities not available in the older platform, so making backwardly compatible products fails to take advantage of just these capabilities. And at least with open-source products, there is no purchase or license costs, even if there are labour and opportunity costs associated with upgrading. But with proprietary products, costs balloon rapidly in an ecosystem that is constantly upgrading its framework and its applications.

Distance Education is my focus and my first priority – the first problem that I am trying to solve – is lack of access to educational opportunities. I am also keenly aware that we must deliver quality learning products to our learners, but access first. And there’s the rub. New technology offers amazing interactivity and communications capabilities. We can now connect with learners and deliver to them more interactive and engaging content than ever before. That means we have the potential to deliver some of the richest, most interactive learning content ever. The problem is that the richer and more interactive the content, the more dependent on the most recent technologies this content becomes. I call this the e-learning paradox. When we launched web-based distance learning here at COB we were boasting a robust web-based learning management system with both synchronous and asynchronous capability. Through our virtual presence we were bringing COB to our inhabitants in remote settlements. More often than not, however, these settlements had unreliable power supply and intermittent Internet service. We assumed from the start that technology was the solution with out properly understanding the problem of remoteness. As you can imagine, our program launch was inauspicious to say the least and forced us to rethink how we do distance education.

And so this e-learning paradox is our first challenge: How can we create interactive engaging content, but at the same time ensure that we do not marginalize even more learners, many of whom need access to learning most? –> part 2: the digital divide (available 17 July)

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