Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Distance Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 07, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 7, 2007.

A reader writes,
I've just changed jobs and am now supporting the development of a distance learning module delivered almost entirely online.

Experiences of distance learning - my own, those of my friends and colleagues, has always been disappointing but the team with whom I'm working are enthusiastic to try new things and see if we can come up with something exciting and engaging rather than the usual isolating, dispiriting experience. We're exploring Second Life and other social networking tools but we'd also be very interested to know how others are resolving this issue outside of the UK.
My response:

I'm not going to have any fool-proof advice for you because a lot of the success or failure of e-learning lies outside the technology itself.

One thing that stands out in particular is that e-learning is often used to support adult learning. It is well known that adult learning needs to be structured differently than learning directed toward children. In particular, adults expect to have more control over their own learning environment and expect to be able to bring more of their prior knowledge and experience to bear. However, a lot of online learning is designed as though for children or younger university students. So adults find such learning dissatisfying.

It is worth noting that, because the technology gives users more freedoms than traditional environments, the effects of such dissatisfaction can be magnified. A person whose attention may waver in a classroom would nonetheless not pull out a radio and start listening to it alongside the lecture, nor open up a newspaper and start reading the sports section. But in the privacy of one's own home, even during synchronous sessions, learners are free, without even a social constraint, to do all of this and more.

I think this is important, because I think that different learners have very different motivations and needs. With some learners, the conversations they have with their instructor and fellow students are of central importance. This is why Athabasca University used - and still uses - audio conferencing. In some cases, it's the having of a person to report to that creates motivation; in others, it's the support and shared experience. Presence, as Terry Anderson describes it. Conferencing systems like Elluminate have been successful in creating this interaction. Skypecasting and Skype conferencing, as they do on ed Tech Talk, can also support it.

On the other hand, other learners neither need nor want this sort of interaction. The time constraints imposted by synchronous learning are an inconvenience, and they find the spoken work a clumsy and inefficient means of transferring information. They can engage with other students, but for one reason or another they want and prefer the distance of asynchronous discussion boards. Though people talk about learning being a social experience, a not-insignificant number of people don't want to become part of a group - this is especially the case with highly motivated people who have already built their own independent networks for support and information exchange.

These factors - and other factors, such as varying comfort levels with technology, differences in bandwidth, differences in literacy level, etc. - have in my own mind argued against the possibility of coming up with a single approach that will interest and engage everyone in a class of students. So I think that while an attempt to increase synchronous interaction - using, say, Second Life - will thrill some students, it will annoy others, especially those who are busy, results-driven, have slower bandwidth, who are poor typists, or who have weaker computer skills.

One of the problems with the contemporary approach to online learning is that there is almost no escape from this sort of dilemma. You write that your are "now supporting the development of a distance learning module delivered almost entirely online." What this tells me is that you are supporting a specific unit of training for a specific group of people. Thus you are locked into a class-and-content model by default. You have to design one thing for a group of people - you are at best going to design an ideal solution for only some of them and at worst are just guessing about the target population and will design what works for few of them.

The success stories I've been hearing have a lot less to do with designed learning and a lot more to do with what might be called informal learning. I think of my own website, for example, as a significant success - it is an important (some say vital) part of the learning environment for thousands of people. I see teachers - like Clarence Fisher, Darren Kurowapta, and Konrad Glowgowski - using technologies like blogging in their classes with excellent results. Ed Tech Talk is, in my view, an unqualified success. Public discussion boards - things as varied as Yahoo Groups and EdNA groups - and mailing lists - DEOS, ITForum, TALO, and many more - have been lifelines to people. Everywhere I look, this - and not deliveries of modules of instruction to predefined groups - is what is defining successful instruction.

It's easy to focus on the technology, but what's important comes before the technology:

- the learners choose their own technology - whether blogs, discussion boards, audio feeds, or whatever - and the mix of synchronous and asynchronous interaction is up to each individual (nobody is required to join some group from a chat, nor are they excluded from being able to join some group for a chat)
- the content is not imposed on them, but is rather self-selected, which means that it is available on an as-needed basis (hence the popularity of Google search) and also as a feed or a stream (hence the popularity of RSS and blogs, as well as podcasting)

These are the things that I think are essential.

Now can this be done in an institutional environment - a corporation, say, or a university? Ironically, it's probably more easily done in the former, as there is not the expectation that there will be pre-defined classes and course content. In a corporation, the challenge is different: moving the organization from being an information desert, where communication is thought to occur is staccato bursts of 'learning', to an information-rich environment, where learning is the normal state of affairs.

In a university environment, I fear, the best that can be done is to mitigate the disadvantages. Basically, what this means is throwing a lot of stuff out there and letting people craft their own course out of it.

- Audio lectures are great for people who have commutes or exercise routines. The Stanford Lectures on iTunes are a good example. Funny story - because I have tinnitus I often listen to my iPod while I sleep, to cancel out the ringing in my ears. I woke up last night and playing on the iPod was a Hubert Dreyfus lecture from his existentialism course. This is the first time a lecture has actually woken me up!

- I think online synchronous chat sessions are worthwhile, though I would hesitate to make them mandatory. Elluminate has worked very well for this, though I would watch for very rapid changes in this area of technology. These should be less like lectures and more like talk radio. MP3 audio recordings should be available.

- I think a course blog - or something that provides a focal point for resources, discussion, etc. - is essential. Having a course blog allows the person to put something into the students' RSS feeds, thus delivering the material to them. I would also use an RSS-to-email service for those students who aren't yet using an RSS reader regularly.

- there should be a content area for the course. How this is set up can vary widely - it could just be a set of links from the blog posts, it could be a wiki co-authored and organized by the students, it could be a common set of tags - I would discuss this with students and try to find out what would work best for them.

- there should be some sort of course community. Again, participation should be voluntary. The community could be a discussion list, a mailing list, or individual student blogs - or a combination of these (does everybody have to use the same thing? No, not if you aggregate from all of the different things and present them in the course blog). I wouldn't require that students join some sort of social network like Facebook - students should be free to make (or not make) their own social connections.

As for the actual content - I would try to keep design to a minimum. Rather than trying to create something all in advance, and then deliver it, I would try to have a set of resources on hand, available as needed, and to then think of it as content being streamed, where the instructor and the students are as responsible for the shape of the course as the designer, indeed, more so. Think of it as being like one of those reality TV series, where you throw things into the mix, but where the participants sort ot all out for themselves. A course is not an object, not a project - it's a live improve event, and so design consists essentially of having props ready to be pulled onto the stage as needed.

I hope this helps.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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