Lessons about online learning

There is a lot of advice and sharing going on at the moment around online learning and teaching. I thought it timely to articulate some of my own lessons from many years of developing and supporting online learning. I also draw on my experiences of being an online student in two fully online programmes (my Master’s and EdD) and in MOOCs.

This is shared as a personal reflection rather a prescription. It is also written with total recognition that in this unprecedented time colleagues are doing their best in difficult circumstances. Many are fighting to support the mental and physical well-being of their own households. There is a long way between where we are now, with what is being widely called the pivot to online teaching, and where we would be if we built online provision from scratch. Nevertheless, here’s a few reflections on my lessons learnt:

  1. Online learning is not everyone’s first choice. Reasons for choosing an online learning often relate to work, health, geography, and family, and, now pandemic. Online learning may be described in deficit terms as ‘alternative’ to face to face. This is an important backdrop for all that we do, and it is important for those of us (me included) who gush about the benefits of online to recognise it isn’t everyone’s  ideal choice (staff or students).
  2. Online students are often busy people who have to make rational choices about how to spend their time. It is important that online provision shows a continued respect for the circumstances of learners and that it does not waste their time. This can come through in a number of ways which include: Clear signposting of requirements; Well-organised resources; Avoidance of compulsory activities that have limited value; Flexibility in how to access materials (where and when I can study); Simple kindness and getting to know students to understand their needs.
  3. Don’t waste your time on re-producing content. ‘Content’ is on the web, right? Content is everywhere – want to know something? No probs, I can Google it or ask Alexa. As an online student I don’t (always) need YOUR content (ouch, sorry if this sounds harsh). I can have the content of the world’s greatest thinkers, cutting edge researchers and commentators at my fingertips. This doesn’t mean the lecturer’s role is dead, quite the opposite. Collate and CurateThe role needs to be refashioned as a curator, tour guide, archivist, questioner, and co-learner, as someone to guide learning (through feedback, probing or exemplification, highlighting common errors or misconceptions and prompting dialogue). It is someone to help navigate the daunting online terrain, and someone to enable critical thinking. It is someone who models the behaviours of an inquiring mind. To reassure any colleagues who are concerned about making this shift – when campus returns these techniques transfer back in to the classroom to create rich experiences. As a footnote to this point, it’s important to remember that terminology matters – if we continue to identify as ‘lecturers’ then there may be associations with notions of transmission, ‘giving’ a lecture and being an authority. If online is to grow and normalise, it may be time to rethink what we call ourselves.
  4. Space management matters. As an online tutor and learner, I needed and benefited from regularity. Limit the number of platforms that you send your students to. By all means integrate and link, but give structure and scaffolding to avoid disorientation. Consider very clear guidance, even a visual map, that sets out the purpose of different platforms. To ensure that spaces are well used it is also useful for staff to use the tools that they ask students to work with, to gain a familiarity of students’ lived experiences.
  5. Online tools haven’t changed as much as we might think in recent times.  The tools and approaches of the current online ‘pivot’ don’t look all that different to those we were using in 2006. The principles of online learning aren’t so different over time either – clear communication, collaboration, managed choice, dialogue, accessibility considerations, scaffolding, and facilitated learning – remain as good now as they always did. Given the history of research and evidence-based practice in the pedagogy of online learning, now is a good time to take some lessons from what has already been tried. The Association of Learning Technology is a well established organisation and community with heaps of experience – it may be useful to take a look at some of ALT’s work, and the work of it’s members.
  6. It’s important that we don’t get caught up in being led too much by the technology. In my doctoral thesis I noted three types of decision making around learning tech i) finding some tools and looking for oppportunities to apply them (this is a magpie way of working that chases shiny things!) ii) encountering difficulty and seeking out technology that might help iii) having a good working knowledge of technology which can be applied to problems or needs as required. Being conscious of how we use and make choices about technology can help – it acts as a safety valve that stops us being tools driven at the expense of learner experience.
  7. Assessment (still) drives learning. A great deal of literature makes the link between learning and assessment. It’s important that we don’t forget this when working in the online environment. As an online learner I am much more motivated when my activity links explicitly to the assessment process (without assessment goals, my MOOC engagement has been pitiful at times). Linking learning and assessment may mean requiring an online summary to be posted after a set of activities, or it may mean that some element of collaboration supports individual assessment. Frankly, making the link to assessment means that on a bad day, when as a student I have many competing priorities, I know that I must make time to engage.
  8. Feedback matters very much …All we know about feedback carries in to the online environment and it’s important that we don’t lose this point. Technology affords so many opportunities for feedback from one-to-one online meetings (and record them if you can), through to screen-casts and written peer-feedback in learning sets. It allows for one-to-many feedback and exemplars too. It may be useful to articulate a feedback strategy and share this with students so that everyone is clear how and where feedback will be available. This of course is a good thing to do in face to face teaching too, but with the lack of casual signals and end of class conversations, clarity around feedback is very important for all involved. It can help to know when to ask and what to expect.
  9. Group work is still possible, and still equally tricky. Online tools enable group work through collaborative editing, research projects, and discursive learning sets, for example. Despite the tools available to enable group work, all of the old debates and difficulties exist – how do we choose groups (or teams), how do we allocate marks – on process of group function or output? what about those who don’t do so much? By all means use group work (as we should) but the tools available need to be carefully structured, planned and supported, just as with a face to face situation.
  10. Synchronous learning isn’t always accessible, and it’s rarely convenient. 14 ruston pl_How can I attend your virtual lecture when my children are crying, and I need to deliver food to my parents_ace, rosebery (1)Although video conference technology has evolved, it is still challenging to get everyone together online at the same time. Students and staff may be working in the context of lots of other life events, and in busy or difficult domestic settings. Opting for synchronous sessions really reduces the flexibility of online learning.  Consider how pre-recorded content, with activities (read ….  create …share…practise… research …) and discussion can be used together to create a rich and also flexible online learning experience.
  11. Make me a partner! In all of the online courses I have taught on and studied on I have felt like a partner, I have felt that we were making an online experience together. Ongoing dialogue relating to what is working well and what could we do differently is perfectly possible. Recognising online learning as a shared endeavour and keeping open to evolving approaches can mean better relationships emerge, and ultimately a better experience for everyone. This can be done in so many ways – but the most important condition to  build partnership in online learning is an openness and willingness to listen. We need to be receptive especially when provision is in its infancy. Informal channels (forums online suggestions boxes, routine discussion and simply asking ‘how is it going?’) can be mixed with more formal processes. Critically, this receptiveness needs to include those directly supporting students but also those who manage the infrastructure and support systems. Back in 2006 I reflected on what helped us to create one of the first online degrees …. “setting out on a journey together where learners and facilitators invest themselves … to find out how new methods of learning can work. Where we’re all prepared to try and fail, then try again. There’s no fountain of knowledge but a culture of discovery’. 
  12. Foster relationships. Online learning can lead to deep and lasting relationships. I’d encourage everyone to use the communication channels available to share and get to know each other through their course. Again, this moves us away from transmission to more of a social model – discuss things, seek opinions, ask students to link ideas to their experiences, encourage support to be sought and given, and take interest in each other. Joyfully, I am still friends with students I supported online sixteen years ago. When I watched my online students graduate, I knew so much about them (their motivations, fears, interests, politics, passions, work and family situations) but I didn’t know what they looked like; in itself this did not matter, I still knew and cared greatly for these people. Online learning should be a social process, otherwise it may as well be a web search.
  13. As a caveat to the point above, it’s important to be aware of how much people want to give of themselves. While I am promoting social learning, we should also respect the point that relationships take time to build, and not everyone can or wants to fully socially engage on demand. Social engagement in the learning context should still be purposeful, linked to the course, scaffolded and ideally linked to assessment in some way. Just like in a classroom the facilitator (or lecturer, tutor, or teacher, call it what you will …) needs to understand and respect individuality, motivation and time available. Starting discussions ‘for the sake of it’ is rarely helpful. Social engagement must be purposeful, otherwise it may be rejected as trivial. The wider engagement and sense of being an online community can grow around the primary purpose.
  14. Remember that students didn’t sign up for a module (in most cases), so it is important to coordinate approaches across a whole course. If a student undertakes eight modules simultaneously, each with different requirements, technologies and approaches, the experience may feel chaotic. If we are moving to online as a longer-term modus operandi, I would urge course level thinking and coordination more than ever.

For now though – stay safe and well 🙂

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