Over to online learning

Professor Roger Lewis, YU Associate

One of the most surprising outcomes of the past few difficult months has been the seeming ease with which universities have changed their teaching from largely face-to-face to entirely online. This has been announced on websites promptly and factually – as if the transition is unproblematic.

Actually this marks a further shift along a continuum which universities have been making over recent years. In a ‘blended’ approach ‘traditional’ provision has been supplemented by the ‘affordances’ of technology. For the past month it would appear that one element in the mix (online learning) has become isolated as the prime route by which students can continue their formal education programmes.

This gives rise to questions. What do students think of these changes? What issues does online learning cause for them? Will they see it as academically equivalent to the normal ways by which they learn? How effective will online provision be in helping students achieve course outcomes (and their wider objectives?) To what extent can online learning foster the collaborative and social contact considered by many people to be essential parts both of learning and of living at university? We shall have to wait for answers; universities will be doubtless be collecting and analysing data to further our understanding.

There have been many predecessors to today’s online learning. Initially, ‘correspondence teaching’; then ‘distance learning’; later iterations include ‘open learning’, ‘flexible learning’ and ‘blended learning’ (to say nothing of ‘resource-based learning’, ‘independent learning’ and similar).

Each ‘new method’ was at its time seen as inferior to traditional face-to-face teaching. And this despite the Open University from the 1970s demonstrating convincingly (and against clear criteria) that such methods can achieve equal – and sometimes significantly better – results.

Higher education consists of two processes: ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’. The value of the former is directly related to the extent to which it fosters the latter: the value of teaching lies in the learning it brings about.

Both partners – teachers and students – tend though to focus on the input (teaching) rather than the output (learning).  Witness, for example, student comments on value for their fee depending on how many hours of interaction they have with their teachers.

Again traditionally (though in many places this is now changing) teaching is equated with the transmission of knowledge (however ‘knowledge’ is defined within a particular discipline).  Much lecturing has constituted the passing over of knowledge, pre-organised by the teacher, to the student. There is evidence that this was also the model driving much web-based learning, at least in the early days of the internet. Hence the rather unfortunate word ‘delivery’ often used to describe the process, as if ‘teaching’ automatically passes over a package of ‘learning’ to the student.

Teaching is more than the transmission of course content and the student must do more than simply receive the teacher’s information. High quality teaching (whether traditional or online) prompts the student to process knowledge for themselves and to communicate personal understanding in a range of outputs. Often it requires collaboration with other students and interaction with the world outside the university.

Online teaching needs to incorporate all the best practices of face-to-face teaching. The technology requires intelligent use by teachers and students. Just as simple media (such as correspondence teaching) can be used imaginatively so complex media can be used in limited ways. Whatever the medium, great learning design is needed to stimulate learning.

Over the past six or so weeks huge efforts have been made to switch to online learning. From this platform the region’s universities have the opportunity to develop as world leaders in the ways in which they use today’s sophisticated technology.

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