Monday, July 11, 2011

The online student – not even a face in the crowd?

I wish I had never seen the video posted below.

Prior to seeing it my academic world was a comfortable place. As a secondee working at university as an associate lecturer in education life was great – after decades of working in schools to be in a place that genuinely respected learning was hugely refreshing. Learning was valued. Resources were plentiful – certainly compared to the schools in which I had taught. The technology available to use to present tutorials was far in advance of anything available in schools. Dealing with adult learners, most of whom were keen to learn, was such a joy after trying to coax disengaged high school students into anything resembling academic activity. I was free to explore the possibilities open to the connected educator. The crippling load of marking was the only negative – and compared to my previous workload in schools it was manageable. Teaching was great again.

My load was a mixture of face to face work and online work. I was comfortable with this. The technology made life easier for students and there was research to support the notion that online learning was at least as effective as face to face learning. This meant that, although I didn’t actually see my students, I was comfortable that “the process” was a valid one for them. (For further reading in this area see this USA Department of Education report “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning “ , September 2010.)

It seemed that all over the globe students were voting with their fingers and opting for online courses. In the USA double digit growth in the percentage of students studying online seemed to vouch for this fact – an estimated 4.6 MILLION students were studying online in America alone.

In Australia online studies were proving so popular that face to face classes in some universities were suffering a significant fall in numbers. One report suggested that up to 44% of students rarely see the inside of a university lecture room. Surely,I thought, such a popular learning platform must be good for all concerned?

And then I saw this video.

The world changed.

The potentially crushing experience of students being alone with minimal genuine contact with teaching staff is made painfully clear in this very simple, very clever production.

Online learning requires a new repertoire of learning skills. It also requires new teaching skills. It requires a significant effort to ensure that the digital student is first and foremost a person. No technology, no matter how powerful, should ever be allowed to change that.

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