eLearning - a lone voice in the wilderness

Until now, there has been little discussion about eLearning concerning Polish schools. The issue did not seem to be of much interest to the media or to the teachers themselves, not to mention the parents. Consequently, Polish schools and teachers use eLearning tools only sporadically, if at all. Statistics indicate significant differences between our classroom reality and the one observed in the majority of other European countries and the United States.

Finally, eLearning is being widely discussed

However, the recent events that have forced teachers and students to work and learn remotely have changed this situation radically. The Internet is being flooded with posts and articles on how and what to teach while the schools remain closed. 

It suddenly turned out that we have a lot of eLearning experts in the country, led by the Ministries of National Education and Digital Affairs, who give advice on how to move from the nineteenth-century school model based on a whiteboard and a book, to a twenty-first-century school structured and supported by technological solutions. And all this within a few days.

Fast-growing lists of free IT tools available for teachers and students to be used for effective remote learning are coming out of the blue. These lists contain almost everything, from email clients and instant messaging systems to office software and social networking applications. 

It would seem that since we have so many experts and plenty of different free tools, the situation is perfectly controlled and the children are well equipped to continue education regardless of the fact that they are staying at home. Yet, are we sure we can rest easy?

Multiple tools, or just one tool?

I have been professionally involved in eLearning for almost 30 years (yes, that’s how long technology has been used for to support education) and it is clear to every specialist in our area of expertise that if a school or institution is considering remote teaching or supporting the technology-based teaching process, the first association and preference is dedicated software called LMS (Learning Management System) or VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). These solutions have existed for a long time and have been successfully employed by schools and universities around the world (still, extremely infrequently in Poland). One of the best known (though perhaps not the most successful) example of such software is an open source platform – Moodle. LMS is as fundamental to eLearning as the accounting or warehousing software for businesses today. If a company plans to support its accounting with technology, it is not advisable (at least on a certain scale of the company) to use a spreadsheet to issue invoices and warehouse statements, and then send such files to given employees by mail or a messaging system.

What is more, the terms “eLearning platform” and “educational platform” are quite common in Poland. These names are used both for simple educational websites and other more or less advanced educational tools, which are usually just a fraction of what is normally expected from an LMS’s basic functionality.

It is incomprehensible to me that in all those eLearning-related articles that appear daily in the Polish press, as well as in the entire discussion on the subject in social media, the concept of LMS does not really exist. Instead, various kinds of “experts” advise teachers to send assignments to students by e-mail or via an electronic gradebook. 

LMS brings a lot of benefits to schools. Above all, it integrates a number of teaching tools in a student-friendly environment and offers a multidimensional communication platform for students, teachers, school administration, as well as parents. However, this is only the beginning of the list. Not only does LMS integrate many tools into one coherent IT system, but it also provides a repository of interactive educational content, organises the work flow between teachers and students, securely stores users’ sensitive data, enables automatic assessment and detailed reporting of students’ results and progress (not only at a given moment, but also in the long term), allows to monitor learners’ development and cognitive progress, and informs about possible problems, dysfunctions or developmental threats. LMS allows teachers to create and collect their own educational materials and share these with fellow teachers and with students. Learning Management System facilitates innovative forms of schooling such as the idea of she flipped classroom. The list of potential advantages in case of most professional LMSes is extensive.

What’s eLearning, really?

There is another big misunderstanding across this entire debate. Sending a PDF file by email, handing out assignments via online gradebook or messenger, watching videos on YouTube or talking on Skype should not be regarded as forms of eLearning at all. At least not in its modern sense. These are practices similar to radio learning that were used by sparsely populated countries in the first half of the last century, just with slightly different/modernised tools.

First and foremost, eLearning is about the data concerning learners’ performance and the conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis of this data. 

It can be said figuratively that the benefits of eLearning are mainly due to the fact that an advanced IT system (LMS) is able to collect and process students’ data which is generated during the users’ work with interactive content (tasks, exercises, simulations, educational games). This data is collected, interpreted and further reported in an appropriate way to the students themselves, teachers, parents and school management, allowing for incomparably better insight into student progress, in comparison to what a statistical single teacher working with multiple classes with thirty or more students can ever have. This accurately recorded data enables responding to possible student difficulties much sooner than it is possible in the case of the traditional teaching model. This is of paramount importance now that schools operate remotely.

Last but not least, the data perceived as students’ performance and delivered by an LMS significantly reduce the “mechanical work” of the teacher regarding checking and evaluating homework or tests, but also concerning the supervision of student’s day-to-day progress. The time saved can be used by the teacher to individualise the teaching approach and to be more creative in the classroom, having more time to prepare when the class is conducted remotely. All this is very valuable and important when the school operates in a regular way. However, when unexpectedly students and teachers have to work remotely, LMS with its capabilities is simply something the school needs. 

And here’s another important conclusion. eLearning is supposed to reduce the teacher’s workload while increasing the efficiency of their work. Isn’t that what we expect from technology in every area of our lives? Does sending homework by email and then collecting it from hundreds of students (a teacher often works with a number of classes) and finally browsing through hundreds of files really make work simpler? It sounds like a technological nightmare and that’s what it really is. Maybe that’s why eLearning, which is so badly understood, hasn’t settled down in the Polish school reality so far.

It’s worth a bit of a struggle (at first, not all the time)

It is true that implementing an LMS within a school requires some effort. It is necessary to enter all users (students, teachers, parents), set up their mutual relations (classes, subjects), make sure that there are adequate interactive materials within the LMS, or even create such materials from the scratch, if necessary. The majority of genuine LMSes provide teachers with advanced tools for creating interactive content. On average, however, the process of creating the school database takes only a few days (except maybe for the content creation part), and offers invaluable benefits in return. Facing long months of uncertainty concerning the closure of schools, but also in order to improve the quality of learning in the “normal times”, it is shocking for me how little is being said about complete eLearning in this whole discussion. 

To dispel any doubts, I would like to add that the platform offered by the Ministry of National Education – epodreczniki.pl – under no circumstances can be considered a learning management system – not even as a most simple one.

Is this even legal?

I’d also like to draw attention to the critical question of users’ security in all this confusion. The Ministry of National Education, the press and an uncountable number of experts in social media are calling for various types of free applications. Has anyone thought why these tools are “free”? Isn’t it the sensitive data of the students that is really the price here? Does anyone check who is the administrator of the users’ data concerning each of these tools? Facebook requires at least thirteen years of age under its regulations (so does Gmail). So neither Facebook, nor Messenger, nor WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) cannot be used by students under thirteen years old. Many free social networking services, but also educational sites, use their users’ (and therefore students’) data for profiling, which is against the guidelines of the GDPR! Do the institutions and experts recommending these tools take full responsibility for their advice?

Let me further specify that registering for any website is a form of entering a civil law contract. According to the Polish law, such a contract cannot be concluded by a person under thirteen years of age. Thus, in such cases, every registration must be carried out by a parent or legal guardian. Furthermore, a person between 13 and 18 years of age is allowed to register on their own, however, for such a contract to be valid it must be confirmed by a parent or legal guardian. Do all the online tools and websites that are being widely recommended today respect these regulations?

Make it free!

Being a businessman, I cannot help but comment on one more aspect of the recently intensified discussion on eLearning in Polish schools. Although today eLearning seems to be critically necessary for the proper functioning of Polish schools, it is believed that it must be provided free-of-charge. On the Ministry of National Education’s website, where vendors can submit their eLearning tools, there is a following disclaimer:

All submitted materials/tools must be completely free of charge – free of restrictions as well as of advertisements, sales offers or product placement. Teachers cannot be recommended tools that they would have to pay for. Commercial cooperation offers will be left unanswered.

Source: https://www.gov.pl/web/zdalnelekcje/zglos-pomoc
Access: March 22nd 2020

Do we really want our children to be limited to free solutions only? Do we really believe that free tools will provide highest quality education? Do we agree to pay for eLearning with our children’s sensitive data? Valuable interactive materials are incomparably more expensive to develop than traditional textbooks. 

Why is it believed that eLearning resources should be free, if the printed textbooks aren’t? As I mentioned earlier, the resources being ‘free’ is either due to the fact that their quality is low, or that their ‘true’ price is based on the processing of the sensitive users’ data. Besides, why should teachers – professionals responsible for the future of the children – not make money on the market and work exclusively on free solutions?

Clearly, it is understandable that students or parents expect not to pay for eLearning tools, just as they do not pay for compulsory education in public schools or textbooks. However, the institutions responsible for providing free (from the point of view of students and parents) education should not expect that they receive the above mentioned solutions at no cost, just as they do not expect teachers to teach without the due remuneration, or that the government will not cover the costs of “free” textbooks provided by educational publishers.

There have been a few world-renowned companies in Poland that create content and eLearning platforms. One might say that it is actually another Polish specialty. Today, when the whole Poland is demanding eLearning, nobody is talking about purchasing valuable solutions from Polish companies, to, firstly, ensure the highest quality, and, secondly, to support the Polish industry at such a difficult time. On the contrary – everyone, including the Ministries of National Education and Digital Affairs, expects eLearning to be offered to schools for free. Why is that? Are the electricity, Internet connection and textbooks also given away for free? Do manufacturers of masks, pharmaceuticals and medical ventilators give their products for free because they are being very much needed?

I truly hope that the fact of eLearning in Poland being in the spotlight now will be an opportunity for some serious thinking towards real and valuable transformation of the Polish schools. Surprisingly, perhaps it is thanks to the epidemic that we will be able to bring Polish schools into the 21st century. Every cloud has a silver lining.

About the author

Artur Dyro is a co-founder and CEO of Learnetic S.A., one of the world’s leading companies dealing with the development and implementation of technologies supporting education with a particular focus on mobile technology solutions. Learnetic’s products are used on all continents in over 30 countries including, the USA, China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines and a number of European countries. 

Artur Dyro was also a co-founder of Young Digital Planet S.A., being a board member as well as a director of development for over twenty years. YDP was the first company on the Polish market to introduce educational software on CDs (e.g. the eduROM series), created the first interactive resources for therapeutic classes and the first educational websites and platforms providing educational resources for teachers. 

On behalf of Learnetic S.A. Artur Dyro is directly involved in many national and international projects related to the development and implementation of integrated eLearning systems and solutions. 

Artur Dyro has been a speaker at many international conferences and symposia concerning modern education. He has delivered speeches at eLearning Africa, Online Educa, American Educational Publishers Summit, IMS Global Conference, SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit, Frankfurt Book Fair, Asia Education Leaders Forum and many others. 

He was also a member of the steering committee of the International Group of Educational Publishers (IGEP) and is currently a member of the board of the European Educational Publishers Group (EEPG), an organisation bringing together European educational publishers working to continuously improve the quality of educational material and teaching aids. 

Artur Dyro lives in Sopot. He is married with two children. He’s keen on music, running and astronomy.