Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Blended Learning Has No Clothes - or it's Scantily-Clad At Best

Like many institutions, The Hegemon is keen to make us look all whizzy and cool by making e-learning a compulsory segment of every module (the misleadingly-titled 'Blended Learning Entitlement'). I'm a cautious fan: Plashing Vole was born when I tried to teach some MA students about blogging (one of my worst experiences in the classroom). Sometimes, online activities are useful and pedagogically justified. Sometimes they aren't, and there's a strong suspicion that e-learning is a way to reduce staffing and building costs.

My major problem with online courses is that they imply that education is the linear transmission and regurgitation of information. It isn't. That's training. I can send you a video of how to operate a MacDonalds deep fat fryer and you'll pick it up. Painfully, I imagine, but it's possible.

But if you watch my lecture on post-structuralism, there are advantages and disadvantages. You can pause it while you check the references or read the primary text I'm discussing, which is great. But you can't put your hand up and ask for advice, or disagree with me, or test out your idea on me and your classmates. Without comrades, you're not learning. So much of what I think I know is picked up from seminars, or in the pub afterwards, or in corridors. Education is a much wider experience than e-learning alone implies. If you're not a genius, or you have family/work ties as well, you'll need a lot more support than you can get via e-mail: academic, psychological, social.

So I'm very wary of full-on distance courses of the kind that the Open University definitely doesn't do, and various other colleges do flog. I'm less than impressed the courses where we sell the material to colleges in other countries to be taught by others, then we mark the work: attainment is always lower. The stats are with me too, at least from the US - from this fascinating article:
countless studies showing success rates in online courses of only 50 per cent—as opposed to 70-to-75 percent for comparable face-to-face classes… Online enrollments across the country are strong and growing, while success rates stay about the same: abysmal
Online has its place: as supporting material for face-to-face, and when it's that or nothing:
For students who aren't able to attend college in the traditional way, "good enough" can be a godsend. But that doesn't mean that all students, or any student who wants to, should take online courses. Our collective failure to recognize that fundamental reality is primarily responsible for the high failure rates we see in online courses.
many institutions … are even complicit in perpetuating the notions that any student can succeed in online courses and that as many as possible should be encouraged to try. (I'm sure we've all seen multiple variations on the "Go to college in your pj's" marketing campaign.) 
Let's be honest: these people are treated like second-class students. Their existence doesn't cross my mind when I'm writing lectures and posting Powerpoint slides (which won't help them: they provide a skeleton around which I put verbal flesh, and lots of it). I've never been trained in writing material for an audience I'll never meet, and nobody's ever mentioned their needs and educational contexts. Is that wrong? Of course it is.
I'd like us to be more honest with students. Generally speaking, online courses are harder than face-to-face ones, not easier. Online courses require a tremendous amount of self-discipline and no small amount of academic ability and technical competence. They're probably not for everyone, and I think we need to acknowledge as much to students and to ourselves.
In the meantime, though, we need to think long and hard about which courses should be taught fully online, and which students belong in online courses. If students and their prospective employers ever begin to suspect that, in our rush to offer everything online, we have oversold and underdelivered, then it's going to be too late for us to have that discussion. Politicians will have it for us.

This is the key. Online components have enriched many of my courses immeasurably. But it shouldn't be seen as a cheap or easy option either for students to get an easy degree, or for institutions to make a fast buck. One of the things that infuriates me is the lazy assumption that students are all technically skilled and hugely impressed by anything on a screen, while being turned off by an actual person speaking to them.

Put it like this: are you thrilled by an automated telephone service when you call the bank? Or do you curse and groan, before sighing with relief when an actual human being talks to you? If you prefer talking to someone at a call centre, then I think the least we can do for our students is to extend them the same courtesy when it comes to their educations.

1 comment:

Sue's Blog said...

I did a few modules with the OU before deciding to apply to the Hegemon and can confirm that there is no substitute for real lectures form human beings.
I have had a fantastic learning opportunity at the Hegemon, and enjoyed truly inspirational lecturers from experts passionate about their subjects who had the ability to transfer that enthusiasm to their students.
People who do ‘teach it yourself’ degrees miss the extra tit-bits of knowledge that stem from class discussions. They also miss out on the friendships and other advantages of being part of a real university community and not a ‘virtual’ one.