It’s been a long time since the idea that people could learn while interacting with a computer (or other electronic device) was new. People in our Engineering faculty talk about testing students using computers in the 1980s, and claim that as ‘online learning’. At the Uni where I work there’s been a group of people paid to look after this side of the University’s operations for about ten years now – and they’ve always operated from a basis of matching the learning requirements of the students, as expressed by the academic staff, to the technology provisions. In the last seven years this support has been increased, and formalised as part of the central structure of the University. We now have around 20 people who work on the policy and practice of eLearning at the university. And, although many of us are highly skilled techies, that’s not what we’re primarily paid to do: we’re paid to support the teaching staff and the students in their use of the eLearning infrastructures. That includes a small proportion of quite innovative stuff, but essentially we work with the average, hard-working academic, who can see a pedagogical advantage in getting their students to interact online, or to do a series of graded self-assessments to supplement the formal classes, or to do research online and learn to distinguish useful sources from inadequate ones.
Although I find his article a bit too focused on ‘consumption’ than on ‘learning’, Rick Wilson discusses the content delivery fallacy – the idea that teaching online means simply moving all your teaching material into some kind of digital format – here. He points out that academics need to think about content differently: where they once thought it was their responsibility to provide the content that students needed to learn, now content is all over the place and accessible all the time, and what students need is to be guided through it, and taught to discriminate – good old-fashioned IT literacy skills, if you like.
In times of dramatic change, like now, the shift occurring from the digital disruption introduced by mobile technology demands nothing short of a transformative strategy in what we are doing with content.
It’s hard to predict exactly what skills people will need to live and work in Western societies in the future. But, whatever they are, you can bet your boots that being able to interact and work effectively online will be paramount among them. In the same ways that in the second half of the 20thC, accountants needed to be very proficient with adding machines (my father’s fingers were like lightning on his), receptionists and sales people needed to be able to charm people over the phone, secretaries needed to be able to take shorthand and type 120 wpm accurately, in the 21st century people will need to be comfortable thinking and producing on screen – and not only in their working lives.
When I was interviewed for my first job in the unit in which I’m now a manager, in 2004, I was asked “What do you say to an academic who rings the helpdesk and says ‘I want to put my course online?’” My answer (which was, luckily for me, the correct one): “I’d ask him why he wanted to do that – what benefit would that bring to his students.” Teaching online isn’t about ‘putting stuff up’; it’s about using your teaching skills in a different way. It doesn’t have to be a huge imposition on staff; if it’s done right – with support and training – it should add to their skills and deepen their disciplinary and educational understanding.
But the way our unit functions, as an adjunct to existing faculty teaching structures that are based on disciplinary epistemologies and priorities, didn’t happen by accident. It is the result of a long line of carefully-made decisions, within the aegis of a senior executive whose primary concern is student learning. We’re not based in a technology or infrastructure unit, and we don’t run the servers. Our budget is granted on the basis of what we do with faculties – with teaching staff – in direct response to their requests. Sure, we have to service the Learning Management System (a enormous and clunky piece of software that, despite its shortcomings, does suit most people most of the time). Sure, we run a helpdesk that is largely concerned with people’s technical problems with the LMS and administrative glitches. But we’ve also conducted training and academic development for nearly 800 people in the last 12 months, all of which was focussed on getting staff to think about what they want students to learn. And every year we spend about 12,000 hours of our time working directly with staff to create resources for their teaching.
Perhaps I have a rosy view of how online learning works at my institution. David Jones takes a light-hearted view of the situation in many universities, but there is an underlying serious message, and he made me think about how much we fall into the trap of being ‘quality nazis’. Certainly, it’s an easy trap to fall into: box-ticking is a much less challenging way to work than entering into real engagement with issues of pedagogy and ‘fitness for purpose’ of eLearning resources. And, if you’re into abuse of power, I suppose it can be very satisfying to tell an academic that what they are offering students isn’t of high enough quality – especially if they come across like one of Jones’s ‘idiot academics’. But I’d like to think that our project management isn’t too ‘rah rah’ – we are all on permanent staff, and we accept that a certain number of projects each year will fail or will produce an outcome that isn’t the expected one, and that’s OK. We aren’t expected to massage the outcomes to match some outside measure of ‘success’. On the whole I think we do a pretty good job, and I’m always grateful that we’re well-supported at very high levels in the institution.
But some institutions are slow learners, so much so that you would despair. You realise how behind the US is in digital learning when you read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students are still expected to pay for books of course readings (31.5.2011) – mainly, it seems, due to copyright restrictions that were negotiated out of existence in Australia and New Zealand nearly 20 years ago – or that students complain that not enough content is available online (14.4.2011) and you discover that some Universities have virtually nothing available digitally. Articles regularly discuss a University’s decision to ‘go online’ in economic terms – despite evidence over many years that teaching online is not a way to cut costs. Even if you do it badly it is expensive if you calculate the price correctly; for example the Chronicle reported on 11.4.2011 that the U of California is to borrow US$4-7million to ‘build online programs’, reversing an earlier decision not to (and their university is $500 million in debt in the present tough economic times).
Locally, the University of New England (one of the main distance education providers of Australian Higher Education) has recently trumpeted its decision to pay a commercial company to ‘put content online’ – discussed by Sarah Thorneycroft here. There’s no discussion in the press release linked from her post about how staff will be supported to actually teach this content online; apparently ‘putting the content up’ absolves academics of all responsibility for that content, which will be devoured by eager students – and thus they will have learned – what exactly? There’s heaps of literature about how much support distance students need; making material available digitally won’t make that need disappear. And I happen to know that the university has recently moved all its online content out of the commercial system that Pearson uses, and is presumably planning to move it back into. This is beginning to look like a poorly-researched decision.
Students coming to university from school in 2012 have been the recipients of the Federal Government’s Computers in Schools scheme for four years. They have been learning online throughout most of their time in high school. University staff who believe that students only learn in the classroom, preferably when they are standing at the front of it, are about to get a shock. These students don’t need information; they know how to get that. What they need to a structure within which to integrate that information into what they already know and develop their understanding into knowledge. Knowledge can‘t be taught; like wisdom it’s a personal thing that each person grows from their environment.
I recently heard a story about a new lecturer to our institution, who’d come from a smaller, gentler place. After giving her first lecture she reeled into the staff room, wild-eyed “They argued with me!” she cried. “They looked things up on their laptops while I was talking and said that I was wrong! I didn’t even know what they were talking about – why are they allowed to use their laptops in class? Can’t we ban them?” It was pointed out to her that they can be banned, but of course it won’t help; the students will only make a note and look it up afterward and email you with their corrections and questions. And that’s what we want them to do: we want them to be independent learners. Your job, gentle lecturer, isn’t to be the font of all knowledge any more; your job it to guide students through the mass of information that’s out there and assist them in making sense of it.
Which, of course, is all you ever did; it just wasn’t as obvious to you before, when you could believe that you were in charge of their learning.