The Educational Promise of Online Learning – Rainbow Connection or DNS error: File not found?

The embrace of remote delivery and engagement is often held to offer a revolutionary opportunity in higher education. MOOC learning may be the latest manifestation of this mantra, but the vision is not a new one, with the winds of pedagogical change heralded since the era of chat rooms and dial up modems – management guru Peter Drucker famously writing in 1997 that:

“[T]hirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Well, “So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it…” – so said (or more accurately, sang) Kermit the Frog in 1979’s ‘The Muppet Movie’ – and as students of the great green sage will be well aware, the next line is “I know they’re wrong, wait and see.”

So is online learning really the way of the future? A paradigm shift in the delivery of teaching that will allow instruction and educational inclusion of the world’s masses with greater efficiency and ever decreasing cost? Or is the digital education revolution, like Kermit’s rainbow, a mere illusion – a destination that will ever recede from us as we seek to approach it?

My own engagement with online educational tools stretches back to the early years of the 21st century, soon after I arrived on the scene as a newly minted, enthusiastic lecturer determined to change the world and enrich the intellectual life of generations of engaged and grateful young students. To paraphrase US academic Matt Cartmill, it turns out this was a bit like becoming an Archbishop to meet girls – but that’s another story.

In those days, whiteboards, chalkboards, and slide and overhead projectors (anyone under the age of 30, go ask your parents about that one) were the tools of the trade, but the internet was already rearing its shiny and alluring head in education circles, and tech-savvy early adopters were exploring its potential in all manner of fields.

As I immersed myself in my first year of classes, I soon found keen young students asking – with all the bright eyed intensity of true believers fresh from Scientology boot camp – whether notes would be made available online. Clearly, the thinking ran, if only they could read the notes on the internet, everything would be alright and knowledge and understanding would pass directly into their cerebral cortices and become part of their being.

Young, innovative, and eager to please as I was, I took up the challenge and worked to create learning materials to support my courses, doubling my workload to lay out packages of notes, study guides, and additional readings.

Students expressed their gratitude, colleagues slapped me on the back, line managers signed off on my probationary progress reports and labeled me an innovator. And then along came integrated online learning platforms (or Virtual Learning Environments – VLE – as they’ve since become) and suddenly my eyes were opened.

The ability to monitor student use at an individual level in these integrated platforms meant I could see exactly who was accessing the material, and when. What this brought home to me was that for all their professed desire for more support (and the time invested by me as tutor in preparing material), depressingly few students actually used the support opportunities when they were made available to them.

With the benefit of hindsight, this is no different in its fundamentals to classmates from my own University days who would invest themselves in compiling complete lecture notes – begging, borrowing, and in a few (with the distance of years, rather amusing) cases, stealing to cover the gaps in their trusty ring binders resulting from illness, employment commitments, or benders in the local beer garden – and then never look at them again. This in itself though is probably a truth we would do well to put at the forefront of any discussion of education – the techniques may change, but the fundamental nature of students does not.

Initially I was a bit depressed by this realization. All that work. All my good intentions. I’d built my learning outpost – General Store, Saloon, hitching posts and all – and all I had to show for it was a few tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street.

What I had done in crafting a VLE to my own inner vision clearly wasn’t working for my students, and armed with this realization, I went back to the beginning and re-designed my online support package around the principle of encouraging a more engaged learning model – presenting materials in a range of ways to facilitate and encourage interaction from different perspectives. Yes, more work for me as a teacher, but this time – working to a more defined educational vision – the result was strikingly different. Student use of online resources increased dramatically compared to my initial attempts, the ethic of interactive and independent learning seemed to carry over into contact hours in the classroom, and at the end of the course, yes, student exam marks increased significantly too.

The point in presenting this second act to the story is not to hold myself up as some paragon of virtue (it was, after all, my own launch failure I was addressing here) – it’s that it wasn’t the subject matter that was critical to this change, or the platform. What made the difference was an engaged educator taking the time and effort to make things work.

Ultimately, VLE and online learning are simply new tools for educators to apply to their mission – and even a tool that can in one hand create a masterpiece might in another produce nothing more than a crude caricature. Octogenarian parishioner Cecilia Gimenez became an internet phenomenon a few years ago for her fresco ‘restoration’ in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain. The artwork retained the same setting as it had before, the same subject – the plaintive Christ gazing up from beneath his crown of thorns – same intention to inspire grace and devotion in the viewer, yet the addition of Gimenez’s brushwork saw Elías García Martínez’s original Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) – by no means a masterpiece, but a passable religious artwork in the Catholic tradition, by all accounts – turned into what BBC Europe correspondent Christian Fraser described as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”.

Online learning does provide a powerful pedagogical tool that can change the relationship between educator and student. Using such online approaches though is no more likely in and of itself to improve educational outcomes than waving a paintbrush is to produce a masterwork.

Even magic bullets need someone to fire them in the right direction.

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