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Online Learning Revisited


It won’t get me a job as a learning technologist (aka technician) but I’ve said it (in a presentation interview online) and will repeat it now and develop the argument, that the best learning experience a student can have is you in the room with them; if this cannot happen, then it is you LIVE, online, talking them through a topic, guiding them and praising them, correcting them and challenging them, responding to their individual stops and starts. Of course, one to one is not scalable. Nor is it sexy tech. So there have to be compromises.

In my five years completing a Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE) with the Open University, taking the five required modules, and in due course another two or three to complete the ‘set’ I can recall two positive modules and equally positive experiences – and outstanding results. No longer the 42/53 and odd 70 I got in other (and admittedly earlier modules), but 92/93 – If I’d retaken the entire MAODE I guess I might have gained a Distinction. Though I am certain I would have needed the kind of support these tutors provided, but they only provided that support on their modules.

This was all online, ‘at a distance’ and very little of it was live. Rather we were ‘as live’ as much as anything putting content into a common OU Student Blog that our tutor and fellow students could dip into. I know that one or two students did outstandingly well and barely interacted at all … but I’m a social learner, I like the praise, I like to be ticked off and corrected too – and to put awkward questions, and to ask ‘why?’ over and over again. I don’t mean to be annoying but when I don’t ‘get it’ I just don’t and it takes a new angle, a new link, something else to read, a chance comment, an analogy or visualisation to get me over the line. Then once I understand it, I really understand it 🙂 I wear it on my sleeve, it is tattooed into my brain.

So where does this leave online learning?

It requires engagement, it requires responsiveness to the individual, even tailor-made – it requires direct engagement from the tutor – ideally the course chair, and where not that someone highly qualified in the subject – NOT a ‘nanny’ moderator who knows f*** all on the topic. Expertise matures over time, it is not last year’s PhD student or this years MA student, it is ideally a professor, or a senior lecture, who lives and breathes their subject.

But how can this be scaled up to teach hundreds, even thousands?

When I last checked there were over 223 million young people around the world hoping to go into tertiary education. There aren’t the professors and senior lecturers to teach them. So we have to create learning, create learning, gamify it, modulerise it, make it ‘smart’ and compromise. AI will do a better job that some tutors and mentors in due course – what is the point of a jobsworth mentor/tutor who restricts their engagement with you to a couple of hours on a Thursday evening – because, they tell you, they are only paid X to do X hours. This is where you need people who teach as a vocation, whatever the risk is to exploitation. This is for their line manager to protect them from, their union to negotiate or challenge if it goes wrong. Can a Chatbot behave like someone whose vocation it is to teach? To experience students finding and developing their strengths?

You have to make the time. And where time is limited you have to use Tech to make more time available – but it is always diluted. Online learning needs to be simple and effective for very particular tasks – I love the determined simplicity of the language learning platform LingVist for example. Involved tangentially in the development of a language learning platform in 2000/2001 I have followed developments closely, tried many apps and approaches (including failed attempts at an A’ Level, and even a undergraduate degree).

In conclusion

Online learning in the form of a course or module must be offered in a multitude of ways to provide a complete experience which includes live/as live, interaction, solo study, old fashioned reading and essay writing, lectures too, as well as smarter IT elements to ingrain specific necessary elements which are suited to a Tech approach.


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