My first experience with any sort of distance education was in the form of home school materials that my Mother purchased before we left for Africa when I was three. All the curriculums from k-grade 5 were packed into big oil drums, (because apparently that’s how you shipped things back then), and off we went. So, my first years of education were not ones spent in a classroom filled with students and ABC posters but at my own kitchen table working with my Mom.
While technically it was not distance learning per se, it was learning at a distance and the basic idea behind it is the same in most cases to what we consider online education. That goal being the dissemination of information. My next experience with distance learning came from Athabasca University. It was a History course that I needed to finish for my degree and it was not offered at the U of R. I signed up for the class and then a few days later my course materials showed up in the mail. Two textbooks, and a course syllabus. I had the phone number and email address of my professor but there were no scheduled synchronous meeting times. I was expected to read the required materials, write about the topics offered in essay form and send my essays to my prof for evaluation. I have to admit I felt very alone in my learning and I had to be self-motivated in order to have success. For some, this system has worked and will work but is it offering the best learning experience for all students?
Online learning is a topic that seems to have polarized views associated with it. It seems like people either love it or hate it. But why is that? Some people are drawn to the ease with which they can access information, interact at their own pace, and explore topics without hindrance. Others, simply desire the human face-to-face interactions of a classroom and the reassurance that the professor is accessible. The beauty of distance education is that the access for those that can’t participate in a classroom setting is freeing in so many ways. Now that technology is offering new pathways for students and teachers in the online education environment, the ease with which content can be offered and accessed is much greater. This is true in a number of ways. Firstly, communication between teachers and students is much more efficient. When distance education first became popular, it was all conducted by mail. It could potentially take weeks to get feedback on something you had submitted. As we now know, quick and valuable feedback is a key component of learning. Secondly, educational technology tools can now offer ways in which teachers can make a very 2D course seem like 3D. What I mean is that with video, chat, games, and interactivity, the online learning experience can be made to seem much more real. As Tyson pointed out this week, if done well, online courses such as this one can be extremely engaging and rewarding.
However, it must be understood that we cannot simply be delivering content as we otherwise would in a classroom. As Erin stated in her blog this week, we have access to tools that could increase online connections and we sometimes fail to take advantage of them. Why are we still so focused on the idea of content delivery? Audrey Watters also rightly identifies the drawbacks of simply focusing on content delivery as the be-all and end-all. In her blog post, she discusses her difficulties with Flipped Classroom style videos such as Kahn Academy. The truth is, that as nice as it is to be able to pause and replay the instructional material, if the content is not understood, there is no further help available. The web offers us so much more than that. There are now numerous ways to interact with others online. Online learning communities can feel very much like home and relationships formed in these communities are often long lasting and fruitful. The learning experience can be tailored to fit the needs of individuals while still engaging the whole group in meaningful analysis and discussion. Innovations like synchronous online meeting web apps such as Skype, Zoom or Google Chat allow multiple attendees to interact and share as if they were face to face. Video, audio, and interactive tools such as GAFE have made collaboration much easier and very engaging as well.
However, can online education ever really replace the ‘humanity’ experienced in classroom settings. As Launel pointed out this week, the Primary curriculums are very focused on social skills, play based learning and interactions with others. Would an online learning environment ever be able to truly capture the emotion that is experienced by millions of students everyday as they receive a high 5 or hug from a teacher, share their crayons with a fellow student, or work through a disagreement in their game of tag? I believe there have been great strides made in this arena as the article below points out. However, I strongly believe that as humans we have an inherent desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; a community. The successes of online education, no matter how interactive the technology will hinge largely on that fact.
As shared by Cara-Jane FeinGold for eLearning Industry, there are ways in which we can create these types of emotional, and humanizing learning experiences. Things like using storytelling to build empathy in students can be a goof start. Here are some tips to get started. Integrating the right tech tools is also a key part of this equation. It can mean the difference between feeling a part of a learning community or feeling stuck on your own. Discussion has to flow both ways and students need to feel like they can explore what they want to learn more about. Picking assignments or projects that foster creativity is a key component. Reaching out and building a community is also a critical step in creating a human learning experience. Choosing tools that allow for simple communication is a good first step. Try setting up a Facebook group, HipChat, or, as we’ve done with this course, start a Google Plus community.
Learning is inherently emotional. As such, it is paramount that our view of online learning incorporate the humanity of learning as much as is possible. But, can online learning environments ever be as human or emotional as brick and mortar classrooms? Let me know in the comments section below.