At educational institutes ranging from primary schools to universities, use of the new technologies as part of the learning process is now finding much greater acceptance than might have been the case. Two recently published studies suggest moreover that there is still immense potential to take this process further.

Connected education now seen as ally to parents and teachers

The use of the new information and communication technologies as part of the learning process has met with a great deal of criticism but, as two new reports from differing fields indicate, the benefits now seem hard to deny. The Nuremberg, Germany-based GfK Institute working in tandem with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a New York-based an independent research and innovation lab that focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape, recently polled over 1,500 US parents on the use of ICTs in the learning process of their children aged from 2 to 10. Meanwhile Imperial College London set out to investigate how effective e-learning techniques might be in training medical students. While these two fields of education differ in many respects, they both increasingly use e-learning tools.  It may come as no surprise to learn that both reports highlighted the growing importance of e-learning technology. They also underline the extent to which connected learning has now begun to gain recognition for its potential to open up new approaches. Parents and education professionals seem to have got over the idea that ‘e’ just means students being glued to their screens without really learning anything.

E-learning no longer disparaged

The GFK survey, entitled ‘Learning at home: families’ educational media use in America’, highlights for the first time parents’ generally positive opinion regarding new technologies in education. A number of studies have previously indicated that school pupils and higher education students were growing increasingly enthusiastic about the new tools, but there was still a question mark over their parents’ perception of them. The latest survey results suggest that now that children are spending on average close to half (44%) of their total screen time on educational media parents are taking a positive view of connected tools. Some 52% of the respondents agreed that their children learn ‘an enormous amount’ from educational television which is the media channel most used by younger children. However, opinions vary widely over what constitutes a game, a quiz or an educational programme. Perhaps surprisingly, fully 11% of parents polled felt that the popular ‘Angry Birds’ game, in which players send birds on the attack to take revenge on the greedy pigs that stole their eggs, was ‘educational’, or even ‘very educational’. More generally, the survey results reveal that parents are more enthusiastic about such ‘at home’ education than was previously thought, 71% of non-English speaking families for example expressing the opinion that educational programmes specifically help their children to improve their English.

Much potential but obstacles remain

Parents are also delighted with the effect such programmes have on their children’s behaviour, over half (54%)  stating that their children now initiate discussions, ask questions or get involved in various activities as a result of using these educational tools. In fact several startups are looking to use them to identify medical conditions or developmental problems in infants. Meanwhile, at a time when the shortage of healthcare professionals worldwide is estimated at over seven million, the World Health Organization (WHO) sees ‘connected’ programmes at university level as a way to increase the number of qualified health workers. In a just-published report co-authored with Imperial College London, entitled ‘eLearning for undergraduate health professional education - a systematic review informing a radical transformation of health workforce development’, the health experts stress the effectiveness of e-learning tools and the huge opportunities they offer. Dr Josip Car, who led the study, points out that the use of electronic media and devices – already used by many universities and workplaces to enable ‘distance learning’ to support campus- or office-based training – will facilitate greater access to medical education, especially in poorer countries where the need for health professionals is greatest. However, access to computers, the Internet and online learning resources still remains a major challenge, underlines the London-based public health expert. Against this general background, the European Commission has been taking steps to encourage ‘connected’ education.

By Guillaume Scifo