Digital Learning Environments: New possibilities and opportunities..


This paper deals with the general problem whether and, if so, how far the impact of the digitised learning environment on our traditional distance education will change the way in which teachers teach and learners learn. Are the dramatic innovations a menace to established ways of learning and teaching or are they the panacea to overcome some of the difficulties of our system of higher learning and to solve some of our educational problems caused by the big and far-reaching educational paradigm shift? This paper will not deal with technical or technological achievements in the field of information and communication which are, of course, revolutionary and to be acknowledged and admired. Rather, the digital learning environment will be analysed from a pedagogical point of view in order to find out what exactly are the didactic possibilities and opportunities and what are its foreseeable disadvantages.


Let me start with a preliminary observation which will explain the way in which I intend to deal with this subject. In my country as well as in other western countries learning experts are engaged in a controversy about the nature of learning and about the problem of which reforms are necessary in teaching and learning. To describe it in simplified terms one can say that the traditionalists believe that learning takes place when expository teaching and receptive learning fit together: the teacher presents contents and the learners receive them, store them in their memory and recall them when being asked for in examinations. In fact, this mode of teaching and learning has a long tradition from antiquity to the present day. Lectures in study centres, printed teaching material as well as educational radio and TV presentations provide ample proof of this. The teacher or the programme developer determines, dominates and is responsible for the teaching-learning process in many ways. Therefore this particular kind of learning is called heteronomous learning. All of us have learned in this way at school and at university. We are used to it. And it is easy to continue in this way.

Then there are the progressives (e.g., Arnold, 1993; Boud, 1988; Dohmen, 1997; Friedrich and Mandl, 1997; Knowles, 1975; Zimmerman and Schunk, 1989) who are opposed to this kind of learning on the ground that it is basically only cognitive, that the students remain relatively inactive or even passive, that the idea that large groups of students could be offered the same content and would then learn the same is an illusion. They maintain that the competitive industrialised information and learning society needs a new type of learning which calls for active learners who are able to initiate, plan, implement, control and evaluate and also apply their learning themselves. Not only is factual knowledge important, but also competence in using the methods of obtaining it as well as the competence of co-operating with others. Here the learners dominate the teaching and learning process whereas the role of the teacher is reduced to that of a facilitator and advisor or counsellor. The learners have to take over responsibilities for their own learning. And they must be active in order to be able to learn. As no external person or institution interferes, this learning could be called autonomous.We are not used to it. And it is a very demanding and ambitious way of learning.


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