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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


We’re not going back to where we were before

by Emil Thirup-Sorknæs
Language: EN
Document available also in: DA

This blog post is from NVL (the Nordic Network for Adult Learning). The NVL works to promote collaboration around lifelong learning all across the Nordic Region and develops knowledge for decision-makers and practitioners. The network is a programme under the Nordic Council of Ministers.

By Dorthe Plechinger

If the current coronavirus situation and the distance learning it has forced on us are tackled correctly, our world will be forever changed for the good. That is what of English professor Gilly Salmon, one of the world’s leading experts within e-learning believes.

Right now, we are seeing the first phase in a transition towards digital learning in several places – forced upon us by the coronavirus crisis. And what we can see is analogue and ordinary teaching methods being applied directly in a kind of digital ditto. That’s all well and good for now, but it won’t work in the longer term if e-learning is to function as a high-quality and enriching tool for both teachers and participants.

That’s the view of Professor Gilly Salmon, one of the world’s leading experts within e-learning. Salmon is currently following developments with great interest from her home in the UK, where teachers are in the same situation as their Nordic counterparts – with schools closed more or less indefinitely and all teaching having been shifted online without any time to prepare.

"The first phase is all about teachers doing their best in a crisis situation. Right now, they are replicating what they normally do in the classroom. They are using synchronised technologies such as Zoom, virtual classrooms like Black Board Collaborate and other similar tools. It is certainly a good thing that teachers have learned to use technologies that were unfamiliar before, but what we’re seeing right now is not bona fide e-learning," she says.

"Right now, teachers are replicating what they normally do in the classroom." – Gilly Salmon

Professor Gilly Salmon, more than anyone else, knows what she’s talking about when it comes to e-learning. For years, she has specialised in working to qualify e-learning, and among other things, she has developed a five-step model. This model demonstrates how teachers can build and support digital learning pathways at every stage in their development.

The model is based on the idea that learning benefits when participants collaborate and work actively with the subject matter at hand. The educator’s task is thus to motivate, retain and challenge participants by designing and facilitating so-called e-tivities, which help participants to work with the material and achieve their learning outcomes. In other words, simply digitising pedagogical materials from the analogue classroom is not the way to go. But that is what we’re seeing right now.

The teacher as designer

In the UK, there is much anxiety right now about the next phase – exams and university applications. The British education system is simply just not prepared to administer exams online, and nobody knows what will happen when the new academic year starts in September if the coronavirus situation has still not been resolved.

"The most foresighted schools and universities have begun to recognise that there is a need to develop a truly good level of e-learning, and that they need to train their educators in this," says Gilly Salmon.

"What participants really need is to learn ways to work together; they need proper guidance and they need to be able to access their online classes from any device and anywhere. So the role of the teacher in this phase is to become a designer and learn to design online learning experiences".

"The role of the teacher at this stage is to become a designer and learn to design online learning experiences." – Gilly Salmon

And this is something they can learn to do, if they are given the right help to translate classroom learning into e-learning. Information on what works is out there, Salmon stresses, so this is not something that teachers need to go out and 'reinvent'.

"There are people who have been working on this for 20 years, so there is plenty of research out there already," she says.

We’re not going back to where we were before

From the next stage – after universities start back up in September – it becomes more and more difficult to predict what will happen next. Among other things, it will depend on restrictions placed on travel and gatherings. But if online learning experiences are designed well, then Gilly Salmon believes that many students will want to continue learning from home, even when their ordinary institutions are up and running, as this will be safer and more secure for the foreseeable future.

"I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we before. The world will have changed by the time schools open again. The students will find out that they really enjoy the flexibility offered by online learning and they will want more of it," she says, explaining that already today, and also in the future, students prefer having their university education 'in their pockets' as it gives them much greater flexibility in terms of their lifestyles and because it is more responsive for the individual.

"We’re more afraid of things until we try them out." – Gilly Salmon

So you don’t think they will be fed up with online learning by the time this period comes to an end?

"That will depend on two things: Whether the schools do a good job and whether or not they do it right. What we’re seeing right now is not good enough. But if the students receive proper online learning on suitable devices, they will be able to appreciate the enormous advantage offered by its flexibility. So, what really matters is how the students respond to it and whether or not teachers get on board with this more flexible approach to their work.

"If we get the next few phases right, then teachers will also begin to see the advantages of e-learning. We are more afraid of things until we try them out. Hopefully the more we try, the more we will succeed, and hopefully it will change the world."

Gilly Salmon’s five-step model

Chief Consultant Sissel Kondrup from the Danish Evaluation Institute (EVA) has described Professor Gilly Salmon’s model in the following way: Salmon’s model is based on her own general approach to learning. That is to say, the premise that learning benefits when participants collaborate and actively work with the subject matter at hand, and that active collaboration requires a secure learning environment.

With that in mind, it is the task of the educator to motivate, retain and challenge participants. The way to do this is by designing and facilitating learning pathways that use e-tivities to actively support participants in working with the material and in attaining their learning outcomes.

Digital tools and how they are used in learning, and even the simple fact of being in an online classroom, are often all new and alien to many of the participants. It is therefore absolutely crucial that online learning is tailored so that participants can gradually develop familiarity with and confidence in new tools and the format of the course.

Step 1: Access and motivation

Participants must feel welcome and get off to a good start in using the tools/platforms, etc. that are to form part of the course. E-tivities at this step should be motivating exercises which help participants to build their confidence in the digital learning space and in the various learning tools being used.

Step 2: Team building

This is where the foundation for a good learning community should be created. Participants will begin to recognise the value in working together and understand that it is important to the individual’s learning process. E-tivities here should support participants in getting to know each other and in understanding that they can support and contribute to each other’s learning.

Step 3: Information exchange

E-tivities at this step should give participants knowledge and experience as to where they can find relevant information, how they can work together and how information can be exchanged.

Step 4: Knowledge construction

At this stage, participants work actively with the material in order to develop their knowledge and discover the relevance of the academic content. E-tivities should support this by helping participants to develop their critical, analytical, creative or practical approach to the material at hand.

Step 5: Review

Participants reflect on their experiences and knowledge. They should learn to take responsibility both for their own learning and for that of the group. E-tivities at this stage should support participants in developing self-understanding, and in both reflecting on and assessing their own knowledge and experiences.

Read the full interview here.


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  • Jana Komleva's picture
    Thank you for this blog article, I really liked your idea of "We’re not going back to where we were before " as I think everyone in the world can feel it right now. 
    This "Five-step model" also seemed very relatable as for some people it might be hard to switch to the new way the things are. I have never heard the term "e-tivities" before, but I think it very nicely represents the idea of working and studying online. If there is a chance that people will manage to follow these suggested steps and implement them in their daily life than we will come to the new stage of life and, as you said, we're actually not going back to where we were before.