As you may know, I spend a lot of my time working on e-learning materials and tutoring distance learning students. And it strikes me that if you’re going to start an e-learning course, especially a degree course that’s likely to keep you occupied for several years, there are several habits you need to cultivate.
- Read compulsively. Unlike students in traditional higher educational institutions, you don’t get the advantage of face-to-face lectures, seminars, the ability to have a conversation with your lecturer after class and so on. You may have a ‘group learning space’ (a bulletin-board type of thing), tutors you can email and occasionally phone, and so on. But believe me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face. Instead, you have access to electronic libraries and (of course) the internet. And second-hand bookshops. And newspapers. Read everything. Try to understand how the world works. No one ever got that from reading a single textbook.
- Understand that in everything you read, knowledge has a price and that price is ‘spin’ – newspapers, media sources and everyone else is writing to persuade you of the truth of their views. Develop ways to understand what’s reliable and what’s bullshit. Develop that elusive thing we call ‘critical awareness’ that enables you to sense when you’re only being told half a story, and if you had the other half things would look a little, or a lot, different.
- Be compulsively curious. Curiosity is a great habit. If you’re not curious about your chosen topic, why are you even studying it? Being curious and asking questions about what you’re taught, going back to original sources, and searching out information to fill in the gaps is always worthwhile.
- You may not have much electronic contact with tutors but you live in the real world, among real people, in a community. That community is a microcosm of the problems in wider society. Pay attention to local issues. Understand your local community.
- Write. Develop the habit that says ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’. If you think you have a good explanation, argument, or whatever, write it down. Then leave it a day and re-read it. I’d bet that when you do that, you read what you wrote and then start thinking things like ‘I can express this in a better way’ – and ‘I didn’t explain the logical steps’, and ‘I forgot to mention X, Y and Z which are also important factors’. The way you get better at expressing your thoughts is through writing.
- Remember that the aim isn’t just to get a qualification, it’s to get the knowledge that justifies the qualification. And knowledge is a slippery thing, because you really start to understand something, you realise it doesn’t stand still. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s more like a roomful of people, all having conversations about different aspects of some subject. Of course there are certain basic agreed points – until someone comes up with a convincing reason why we shouldn’t rely on those points and rely on something else instead, which might happen once every few decades. Beyond that, there’s a lot of stuff where different views need to be weighed on the basis of evidence, and sometimes on the basis of the ‘best we can do with the evidence that’s available’. In short, by studying a subject you’re not just ‘learning the facts’, you’re engaging in a long, slow, drawn-out conversation with a bunch of strangers.
Just a few thoughts. I hope they’re helpful, but I bet you could add more ‘rules’ (or argue with mine) if you thought about these issues for a couple of minutes.
I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blended learning’ a great deal more of late. Distance learning is where you sit at home and study materials come to you in the post, or these days increasingly by email. Blended learning is the new big thing, and involves a mix of distance learning and some face-to-face contact.
My principal conclusion is this: the difference between on-site learning and distance learning is really a question of access to the library and to labs, and these are things that can be fixed in a blended learning model with a little ingenuity and institutional collaboration.
This is my reasoning:
In the dim, distant past I was a student. At the beginning of a ‘term’ (like a semester except there were three of them in a year) I’d turn up at the first lecture for each of my ‘courses’ (this was pre-modularisation). I’d get a reading list and details of tutorial and seminar groups. However, in the humanities and social sciences there weren’t a whole lot of lectures, seminars and tutorials – the amount of time I was supposed to attend some place at a given time typically averaged around six hours a week. The rest of the time I spent in the library, reading or investigating what else might be there that was more interesting. Or I was drinking coffee and debating stuff with other people on the course.
This is the thing about being a ‘full time’ student on a campus: what’s full time about it isn’t the number of contact hours but the fact that you have the opportunity to read a lot and debate a lot. The library is the critical part of the process.
If the lectures had been available as videos or podcasts I could have listened to them when I felt the need, and maybe gone back to them later on as well – it would have been a great asset. Tutorials and seminars were generally more interesting if I’d had a chance to read papers in advance and make notes for discussion, but if we’d had the internet in those days it would have been as good, or even better, to have used a discussion board. Some of my best learning experiences were actually casual one-on-one discussions with lecturers, and though I valued the face-time, emails and phone calls would have worked pretty much as effectively. If e-learning had been available when I was a student, apart from wanting to live independently from my parents (and find a way not to have a job!) I could happily have commuted between working via the internet at home and exploring the university library for stuff that piqued by curiosity and interest – mostly, though not exclusively, course related. That’s the beauty of libraries, I find – those opportunistic, haphazard stumbling across books you’d never have found through an internet search but somehow turn out to be crucial to your learning.
Moreover, in a strange reversal, in the institutions I’m working with, it seems full-time students are availing themselves of exactly the same VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) that are accessible to the distance learning students, and find them very convenient ways of learning. These days, your average VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) has downloadable course content, announcements, a calendar of events, some system for chat/discussion boards/email, lists of useful URLs, and stuff related to assessment (e.g. arrangements to submit coursework via Turnitin).
The only parts of the ‘student learning experience’ that a VLE can’t re-create, and I’d suggest the only part that distance learning misses out on, is the physicality of going to a library and investigating what’s on the shelves, skim-reading and checking a wide range of stuff to determine what’s going to be useful.
The nearest you’re likely to get to that is a library pass to your local university library, reading articles online via ATHENS or browsing books via Google Books, usually with critical bits missing.
Science subjects are different, I know, because of the commitment to hours working in labs etc. Some universities have developed fully-equipped experimental labs in Second Life primarily for distance learning students (though I’d wager full-time students use them as well) but again, I don’t imagine you get the same level of physicality you’d get in a real lab. I don’t, for example, imagine it would replicate a lot of the feelings, emotions and muscle-based sense of the tedious processes of creating an experiment, or building a device of some kind, in real time and with other people you converse with while you’re doing it.
The library and the lab experiences are, though, things that can be somewhat fixed in a blended learning model. University libraries have reciprocal reading (though not lending) facilities and lab sessions may need to be organised say at weekends to complement what can be done in Second Life. So my bottom line on this is: blended learning is going to be the big way forward.
For universities, I think, the major issue is going to be capturing teaching in forms that enable it to be available on the web, whether as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or short videos (think of the amount of stuff available now on Ted.com, for example).
Finally, here are some useful reference materials:
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration – I was particularly struck by the article ‘Where’s Walter?’ by Maryann Lamer, about student retention. I’m writing this from memory but the key point seems to be that these days people have an expectation that any query they have will be answered really quickly, so in distance learning, regular communication and speedy replies to queries are a must.
International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning – I was particularly taken by ‘Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education’ by Rui-Ting Huang (May 2007) – not because of the main argument but its attempt to describe different distance learning structures.
Electronic Journal of e-Learning – there’s a very useful article in Vol 6 issue 3, ‘Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context’ by Mandia Mentis. Also in Vol 6 issue 2, Apr 2008, there’s ‘Engaging the YouTube Google-Eyed Generation: Strategies for Using Web 2.0 in Teaching and Learning’ by Peter Duffy – when I first read this I thought it posed challenging ideas for future development of distance learning, but a lot of them have come to pass already.
That’s enough educative stuff for now. I’ll do a few more light-hearted posts before hitting you with any serious stuff again.