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A few thoughts on e-learning and creativity

I feel like I’ve spend most of the last ten years banging on about the need for the e-learning industry to be more creative. More creative in culture, process, output...the whole lot.

Having made such a fuss about creativity for so long, this time last year I decided to push the boat out and see what it’s like trying to earn money as a creative artist and musician. I expanded my digital art activity, started doing more paid musical gigs and set out on a masters degree in “creative sound and media technology”, while attempting to keep my e-learning business going (we all like a safety net, don’t we?).

Being semi-detached from the e-learning industry and immersing myself in so much creative work has provided me with some new perspectives.

Firstly, because a very large amount of e-learning deals with pretty simple, low-level stuff, a very large proportion of it doesn’t need much creativity. I think I’ve certainly fallen into the trap highlighted by Clive Shepherd where he talks about “over-engineering for information transfer”, although I’d probably call it “over-designing”. Having worked with some wildly creative people over the last year or so, I reckon this over-designing is at least partly the frustrated creative artist coming out. Creative people are rarely able to contain themselves when they see an opportunity for personal expression. The diagram is a quick attempt to try to highlight where we need more creative approaches, and where we don’t.

Secondly, what on earth is “creativity” anyway? Academics tend to define it as consisting of two components: novelty and relevance. This means that something can’t be “creative” if it’s incredibly novel, but irrelevant or useless. These days I’m pulled in two directions on this. On the one hand, so much of the digital art and music I’ve come across is stunningly novel...and...so obscure, conceptual and complex that I can’t even begin to comprehend it. So it’s not relevant, at least to me. Yet even where it remains utterly opaque to me, it can provide the basis for further thoughts, ideas and wanderings. OK – so that’s creative then. On the other hand, if somebody slaps some cosmetic “creative” work on the front of an otherwise dull e-learning course in order to grab the learner’s attention, presumably that’s not creative is it? It can’t be if it’s not relevant. I remain, constructively confused but more open minded than I was.

Finally, I had the privilege of judging some of the e-learning Age awards this year. And I was really impressed by the level of creativity. I don’t mean in some high art, or even advertising agency kind of way. I was just struck by how people had used a wide range of tools, been ingenious in their application and achieved things that worked. Very much novelty and relevance, within their own context. It seems to me that the rapidisation of so much software – something I’ve talked a lot about in the past – has allowed people to try things out, mess about constructively and find creative ways of dealing with the learning challenges they face. Large-scale, old-fashioned industrial (instructional?) design processes militate against creativity; putting creative tools in the hands of people enhances creativity.

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