It’s not intuitive: the case for online education

In mid-April Howard Rheingold wrote about 21st Century Literacies, I remembered his post when I came across a tweet linking to a comment on The Chronicle of Higher Education made by Elayne Clift (a college and university lecturer since 1987). Her first experiences with the virtual classroom made me wonder whether those who have been engaging with online practices and communities over the past decades tend to take for granted that new users find intuitively their way and resort to best practices. By instinct, so to speak.

While online collaboration tools such as FirstClass, Moodle, Wikis and Social Networking Sites have been celebrated increasingly as the way forward for public and private enterprises, those who are left behind are not only those who are trapped in the digital divide. Clift gave five reasons why online teaching resulted in an ‘I’ll never do it again’ – and I doubt the reasons are actually ‘technophobia’ or being ‘plain old-fashioned’ as she had suspected. The reasons she gave were:

  • Anonymity and the lack of physical elements involved in f2f interaction as major obstacle,

  • ‘lack of immediacy’ resulted from her viewpoint in a poor quality of education,

  • ‘distance learning’ involves credit being granted for independent work rather than based on a structured curriculum that had ‘theories and key thinkers’ at its heart – a minus, she finds.

  • Online courses would be too big.

  • There would be no way to help students to ‘develop better writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas’.

  • Finally, Clift concluded that ‘online teaching can be very punishing’ and she felt she had devoted a lot more time – as she attempted to be available online 24/7 – but no compensation was offered.

I felt sorry for her and the students – online learning (involving the teacher as learning agent) can be a lot better than this. It strikes me that someone so experienced in teaching obviously made little attempt to take a more structured approach towards a new cognitive experience. So what went wrong?

Studying – and teaching – in an online environment such as The Open University is not an intuitively available experience. Marking (including commenting) schemes, moderating discussion groups (and resolving online conflicts), stimulating and regulating debate (discuss! – is not sufficient) are practices that need training and improve with experience. Neither students nor teachers need to be constantly available -I think many people learned this when we started using email, years ago. Or even further back, in the days when the telephone was the one device that brought distant people together, with nothing but the voice to interpret, intruding with a blaring ring people’s domestic sphere, at any time. How dare you – moral panics, also then.

Clearly, there is a considerable amount of emotional labour required and involved in online communication and teaching, but then, text-based communication is only one way to interact. There is VoIP with Skype and other providers for IM or video calls. Yet, also here, the big silence can strike. Someone you talk to may misinterpret nearly everything, or say nothing at all. I had lecturers who kept there messages so brief it was rude beyond abrupt – and useless in terms of constructive feedback. And they would never make an effort and go beyond this minimalist talk nor would they use any social networking sites.

Yet I have also had fantastic lecturers who made an enormous effort in helping me to improve my writing and analytical skills. Some had impressive skills in terms of providing me with constructive feedback, they also managed to structure the study load defined by the faculty in so far as they offered additional readings for those who were hungry for more food for thought. Independent work and in-depth knowledge of theoretical frameworks have been pretty much in balance, ever since my second undergraduate year, hence, Clift’s experience may have been fairly different under different conditions.

Being able to communicate clearly, express emotions, doubts and impressions clearly – we all have seen *grins*, *blushing*, LOL as placeholders for invisible body language – is key to successful and satisfying computer-mediated communication (CMC). Choose your own, if this kind of lingo is not age-appropriate for you. There are no hard and fast rules but then this applies to real life too, right.

Dealing with one’s own uncertainties and the ghost called ‘imagined audience’ may have been at stake in Clift’s case, in addition to poor institutional planning. As Rheingold pointed out ‘digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other’, indicating it is a 2-way process. Acquisition of such skills and knowledge takes a cognitive journey that would entail to discuss learning in online settings with students themselves; yet, this in turn is based on the notion of the teacher as a learner and poses a potential risk to their hierarchical position.

New objectifications, alienations and dynamics are at play; with an infrastructure that can be very empowering but is not intuitively available to us just because we are experts in some field called education and have reached a certain age and status, I hope Clift will get another chance to try online teaching – leaving her with much more positive experiences.

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

2 responses to “It’s not intuitive: the case for online education”

  1. pluraldave says :

    Great post. I’m actually quite excited by this discussion, not just because it depicts the variety of experiences one can have in the virtual classroom, but because of what it lacks. Its heartening to see the discussion of online learning move beyond the general stigmas that many educators place on the topic and into a more substantive discussion about what works and doesn’t. Looks like even old stalwarts like the chronicle are starting to realize that online learning is going to be a necessary feature. Maybe what we are seeing is the roughness that comes at the frontal edge of this new paradigm.

  2. flashplayer says :

    Hmm. Is it true? 🙂

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