Online is just another medium which should be treated equally alongside it’s grandiose, moral high ground taking, well to do, face to face cousin.
In a world with so much information at our finger tips, learning happens everywhere. Picking up pieces of information from a shared link on social media, an interesting ad campaign or TV show. With all of this information floating around, ideas clash. Two or more things come together to make new connections that make something clearer or develop a new idea. This for me is learning. The class room should be the place where this clashing and forming of ideas and understanding crystalises into a shared experience.
In my line of work there is often a big debate about online learning being the poor relation to face to face, traditional classroom learning. You don’t get anyone saying this too much about paying their electricity bill online versus queuing up in the Post Office on a Saturday morning!
Now, as with defining learning this could get quite complex but let’s keep it simple. In my experience, if I have struggled with a piece of online learning I can leave it and come back. I can look for other points of view by googling the subject in question. In a face to face environment you get one shot at it. If it’s badly delivered, if you’re not feeling great, didn’t sleep too well, if you don’t feel comfortable with the tutor or fellow students and many more reasons the experience won’t be very good and in some cases off putting all together.
The social element can also get in the way. If you get a dominator in the group and only they get an opportunity to engage, everyone else is bored to tears and wasting their time. You only get one shot! Now, if the stars align and you have a great session with insightful and interesting debate after everyone has studied the material before hand. This allows different perspectives to be explored. The more diverse the group the better. If the session is facilitated well with good reasoned debte this is where great learning can happen alongside all of the connections that get made outside of the classroom. How long can this be maintained for? A couple (at most) of focused hours in my view is the most effecive.
I can’t comment on experiences of full time study but having those moments in face to face environments really brings together all of that thinking you have done on your own. The social element can bring it all together, whether it be an example given by a tutor or a passing remark from a fellow student. In 4 years and a whole degree I have had one full week (summer school) and the opportunity of 2 hours per month in the classroom. I would say that is enough for me. Some of it has been a bit boring and I haven’t been engaged with it but without those moments of shared learning, feelings of frustration and a-ha moments it would have been a real slog. And more importantly not much fun!
The marketing literature for a distance learning course will tell you about student forums replacing the face to face experience. In my view this isn’t a like for like replacement. Just as a face to face experience can be great, so can learning forums. These can be especially useful when given some focus, they can even be assessed. When they can go wrong is when ‘group think’ starts and negativity and ambiguity of the tasks in hand can become confused. I have seen some Open University forums which are anarchy thanks to a couple of well meaning people stoking the fires of negativity and creater even more ambiguity.
The online and the offline need to get on better. Designers and delivers need to embrace the two and not draw a diving line between the classroom and cyber space.