Key Questions and Considerations in Online Learning

Online learning, the story so far…

Previously, we pondered the potential impact of digital technologies on education, the questions raised for those contemplating the design of an eLearning course and how traditional approaches and methodologies can inform the application of emerging technologies. In this post we will consider the possibility that we might have got at least some of our implementation strategy wrong and, more worryingly; are we continuing to make the same mistakes?

Learning to Think Outside the Box

Living in a box

Those of us who work in education are in danger of becoming part of the biggest strategic mistake ever to blight our profession. This will be as a direct result of our complicity in the manner in which the implementation of new and emerging digital technologies is conducted. Tragically, our misfortune will not be caused by a lack of commitment, paucity of knowledge or malice aforethought. Nor will it be the result of any repressive bureaucratic, meritocratic or government policy. Our error will be rooted in the inability to grasp the magnitude of what is possible.

The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire famously said:

“When Man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg”.

Similarly, when man wanted to make a machine that would calculate, he devised the abacus, the slide rule and the logarithm; none of which resemble fingers.

And now, when man has a machine that is capable of broadcasting an interactive educational experience to the world, why does he restricting himself to forms, practices and models that merely aim to replicate the physical infrastructure and pedagogical processes that are already widely used in our classrooms and lecture theatres?

It is no coincidence that the shape of our classrooms and lecture halls, digital file storage systems and database structures resembles that of the box; we must learn to literally think outside the box.

Learning to seperate subjects

More questions than answers

 I can accept that any meaningful innovation in any field is only ever made incrementally. I can also accept that, as we move forward, the familiar structures of the past are dragged along to provide an ever-present safety net to underpin a less tangible future; these usually provide a comforting and supportive frame of reference for the faint-hearted. However, my concern is that we are in danger of applying self-imposed strictures when considering eLearning as an alternative to attendance based learning.

No fixed dose

If we accept that education and training no longer require a physical infrastructure for their provision, why are we reluctant to move from a model that relies on the timetabling of subjects; allocating set time slots within specific days, weeks and semesters?

This implies that knowledge can be divided up into discrete chunks; that it is there to be consumed at predetermined times, in allocated amounts and at fixed intervals to produce the desired result within a fixed time frame.

Knowledge is not something that can be prescribed and thereafter taken regularly in a carefully measured dosage until the course of treatment has been completed.

Why do we insist on replicating data storage systems that resemble the folders, paper based files and the bookshelves of our physical libraries and resource centres?

Again, knowledge need not comprise of artificially separated subject disciplines. The internet provides us with the means to explore the inter-connectivity of knowledge and to adopt a more contextual approach to learning.

eLearning can provide learning alternative

Synchronous vs asynchronous

Why are we content to merely dip our toes into the waters of new technologies by using them as part of traditional, attendance based models?

The most striking example of this is the belief that synchronous interaction is not only desirable, but essential to any educational experience.

Is it fear of the unknown or lack of imagination that leads to some educators seeking to dilute the purely online model by reducing it to a component within a blended learning programme; amalgamating it with attendance based seminars and tutorials?

 Apollinaire Quote on learning to think differently

Online education does not need to emulate the physical classroom or traditional lecture theatre to provide the student with a fulfilling learning experience.

It does not need to replicate real-time interaction with lecturers, instructors or fellow students. The assumption that the eLearning model must, through conscious action or simply by default, replicate that of its more traditional, attendance based counterpart is based upon the erroneous belief that, in order to be effective, learning must take place within an environment that facilitates face to face, synchronous interaction.

Furthermore, such lazy thinking also assumes that attendance based and online models are mutually exclusive and, by implication, that each is engaged in some sort of pedagogical conflict with the other.

Once we accept, wholeheartedly, that eLearning can and does provide a viable alternative to face-to-face, attendance based learning, and that its practice, pedagogies and methodologies will and do provide access to those who choose to access an online educational experience that suits their particular circumstances, then we can develop a third option; a customised, blended learning model that provides a balanced, education package that is tailored to the needs of the student.

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