The Perils of Mistaking E-learning for E-ducation

Posted by on Aug 31, 2010 in Managing self, News & commentary | 0 comments

At a conference I recently attended, a speaker billed as a “futurist” confidently predicted that within 10 years universities will be irrelevant and that corporations will control the entire educational system. In his view most education would be delivered through the Web in small 5-to-10 minute increments that can be easily digested at a desk in a cubicle.

He wasn’t the first person I’ve heard make that claim, but what bothered me was that most of the audience seemed to bob their heads in agreement. “Oh yes,” they said, “Education will all move to the web and universities will go away.” This crowd of well-educated professionals seemed very enthusiastic about the prospect of replacing teachers with web browsers and social contact with isolation.

It seemed to me that this futurist, a former university professor with a Ph.D., was confusing education and training. He failed to see the differences between them and the importance both have in developing an intelligent and aware citizenry as well as a competitive work force.

Training is an activity in which students learn immediately applicable skills to apply to the workplace. Whether they’re learning how to install a new computer, configure a new software package, program in a new language, use a new methodology, communicate with colleagues more effectively, or enhance team performance, training students are learning information and techniques to enhance their professional performance. Training is designed to transmit factual information about how to perform specific work tasks.

But education is different. The purpose of education is not to transfer technology, techniques, or skills. Education is about learning to think, about developing the ability to apply reason and judgment to any situation. Education is exercise for the mind designed to help students grow into whole, competent citizens of society, something much more than just competitive workers.

E-learning may be a good approach to training for some job-related skills, but only time will tell how pervasive it becomes. Personally, I think it will be very useful for task level training. When you want to know how to change the toner in a specific model copier, or how to customize Microsoft Word, the Web is a great place to go. Lerner-directed, immediately available task training is well suited to the web environment.

But it’s become all too common to dismiss the importance of education to the health of a professional career. It’s much more important to be able to think clearly and creatively than it is to know how to change fonts in a word processor. Online training is great for simple tasks, but if you want add high-value for your clients or colleagues, clear thinking and synthesis are much more important. I’ve yet to hear of and have a hard time believing that any online training that will educate your mind for a high-powered career.

My advice is to use each technique for which it is best. Use the Web for information but don’t confuse e-learning with e-ducation. In the long run ignoring education will limit your career and circumscribe your life, no matter how much training you get.

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