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What’s in a name? Beware of preconceptions

May 3, 2011

Flickr photo by Helga Weber

Researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found no consensus among academics about the definitions of “e-learning,” “online learning,” and “distance learning,” (see What’s in a Name? Researchers Struggle With Terms for New Learning Methods)

This reminded me of a discussion with a colleague about “electronic portfolios”. Confusion reigns there as well, because there are three very different varieties — a personal showcase, a tool for institutional assessment, and a vehicle for personal reflection. As a result, unless you clarify ahead of time which one you are talking about, you can end up in a very confusing discussion. A similar ambiguity can be present with the terms “active learning” and “collaborative learning”.

When a discussion between faculty members turns to technology, communication often becomes muddy. Educators have a tendency to mentally attach a teaching practice to their concept of a tool. They assume that whenever someone is talking about technology X they are following using teaching strategy Y – and that method usually comes with a positive or negative connotation.

For example, it’s common to assume that any mention of PowerPoint means bullet points and reading text from the screen. Other people have it in their heads that all professors who use clickers are posing deep, thought-provoking questions.

Why do we do this? We want life to be simple, so we categorize what we see. If we didn’t, we would probably all go crazy. The solution to avoiding confusion is to be aware of our desire to over-simplify and make sure to ask for clarification. When your dean asks what you think about distance learning, get her to elaborate before you respond.

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