Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Advice to Teachers on Online Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 26, 2012

Here are the answers to your questions:

The EdgeX website says this on your page "This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence. This is what I aspire toward, this is what I work toward." While online learning would be less expensive and hence make learning accessible to many Indians, are there concerns that learning becomes very one sided with no real (as opposed to virtual) interaction?

Yes, of course there are concerns. I think most everyone working in this field today is aware of those concerns. The main point, however, is that those concerns do not create a case against the adoption of online learning.

In the first instance, while we often compare online learning and traditional learning with the presumption that traditional learning is more interactive, this is not in fact true. First of all, in many cases, traditional learning is simply not available, and learning that is not available is not interactive. Online learning *extends* the reach of learning to many people who could not otherwise access it. And second, many instances of traditional learning are not interactive. When I attended university, for example, I attended some very large classes. I never conversed with my instructor at all. I even had difficulty communicating with the teaching assistant. I was very much on my own. Most online learning offers a greater level of interaction than this.

In the second instance, the concern with respect to interactivity is taken as a general principle to the effect that online learning should enable, and even encourage, interaction. With this principle I am in general agreement, at least to the extend that interaction supports learning. Hence the form of courses I design and deliver - 'Massive Open Online Courses' modeled on a connectivist pedagogy - are based around the idea of connection and interaction. It is important, though, to keep in mind that the core of learning for the learner is essentially practice and reflection. The purpose of interaction is to support practice and reflection by creating an environment for practice and fostering authentic reflection. But again, online learning is *more* supportive of interaction than traditional learning.

How do you believe online learning is best used and could be used by Indian educational institutions?

Without having direct familiarity with Indian educational institutions (not to mention Indian culture and traditions) it is very difficult to describe how online learning is best used.

I think though that as a general principle the advice I give to Canadian teachers may well be equally applicable in India. The advice is this: to employ online learning to support one's own teaching and development before attempting to recommend it and use it for one's students. If I were to speak to an Indian teacher today, I would not offer advice on how to improve his or her classes, I would offer advice on how to use the internet to support his or her own learning.

Now clearly even here my advice would have to be taken with the understanding that there are conditions in India I cannot predict nor describe. So my advice could only be understood as my own description of what *I* have done in the online context to improve my own teaching and learning. I offer my own work, my own experience, as the example to draw from, with the understanding that each person's experience is unique, and what works for me may need to be adapted before it works for someone else. Or, as they say on the internet, "Your Mileage May Vary". YMMV.

When I talk about what works for me, I generally describe my process under three major headings: interaction, usability, and relevance. I foster a wide and diverse network of contacts and connections from around the world, in order to draw from the widest range of experience and feedback. To that end I have created what is sometimes called a 'personal learning network' supported by my own online writing as well as places where I can read blogs and comments. Under the heading of 'usability' I foster consistency and simplicity in my life and in my learning. To this end I strive to be clear about my values and purpose, to organize my knowledge around my own understandings, and to represent my understandings from my own perspective and in my own words. Finally, under the heading of 'relevance' I strive to ensure my learning serves my own needs as well as the needs of those whom I serve. I seek learning that is appropriate to the task at hand and accessible to me in both content and format. See more here:

I think that if I understand that this is what my student will seek as well, it may change the way I teach. But I cannot understand how and why my students will seek this until I have understood my own motivations, and seen the benefits for myself. I can't simply *tell* people that "practice 100 times a day is good" (or whatever) - I have to actually do the practice myself, in order not only to know that it actually is good, but also why I would think so, and why I would find this valuable.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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