Feature: Unlearning E-Learning

By Teo Hui Thian

Unlearning learning sounds like a paradox but it is a legitimate requirement, especially in this 21st century. Learning means to acquire knowledge or skills by instruction or study. Unlearning means to undo the learning. This is more complex than it seems as knowledge when acquired will become a part of you. How do you undo something that is already a part of you? A short answer to this would be to unlearn and relearn learning.

How can learning, unlearning and relearning take place in an e-learning environment and why must it happen? E-learning involves the use of technology to deliver learning programmes. Media such as CD-ROM, Internet, Intranet, wireless and mobile learning are used.

For an e-learning institution, the main concerns would be managing content development and the learning environment. For the learning part, we usually look at existing models and best practices. We also learn from our own experiences and environment. We talk to students to understand and meet their needs. With rapid development in e-learning technology, we have to unlearn what we have learned because what is relevant now will be obsolete soon. When we unlearn, we must be ready to relearn, replacing the old way of doing things with new ways such as embracing new technologies and providing a challenging and relevant learning environment to our students.

As mentioned earlier, managing content would be one area to look at seriously. To get ahead, we must ensure that our e-learning resources are relevant and ready for future application. Sometimes, this means creating content that will be relevant in five to ten years’ time. For example, many books on academic writing still talk about how to write memos and formal letters at great length but allocate little space to topics such as e-mails, blogs and emerging discourse. The question is, would memos and formal letters still be relevant in five years’ time with e-mails now being accepted as mainstream communication? Would the knowledge we provide our learners now still be relevant when they graduate?

On another note, we need to allow learners to customise their learning: what, how and when they want to learn. The range of customisation can be broad or narrow depending on what the institution wants to achieve. It can be cosmetic or content customisation or both. Cosmetic customisation involves font size (bigger fonts for visually challenged individuals), position of menu (depending on whether the individual is right- or left-handed), highlighting of text and how pages are presented (portrait or landscape). Cosmetic customisation creates a conducive interface for students.

Examples of content-based customisation include enabling learners to annotate, rearrange content, collaborate, hyperlink, discuss in forums or on bulletin boards, tag and cross reference the content intra and inter modules. While these cannot be fully achieved with existing methods, they can be done using a new breed of portable devices and customised applications that allow seamless mobility and connectivity. Learning science, for example, can be made more interesting by incorporating augmented reality software.

Imagine a learner using the camera function on his handphone to point at a hibiscus. The handphone software searches the database to match the image and a nanosecond later, summarised information on the hibiscus appears next to the picture. The learner does further research on the flower by tapping on the link button, which connects him to Internet resources, the module or the institution’s database. Wouldn’t this be a great e-learning environment?

Alvin Toffler summed it up well: “ The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

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In my opinion, tutors should regard our learners as:

Experienced in learning techniques and capable of studying on their own
Experienced in learning techniques but still need to be guided in some areas
Adults who need to relearn some concepts
New to learning techniques and need to be guided
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