Online learning doesn’t just happen

student on a laptop
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When it comes to the delivery of online learning, the assumption is made that it will just happen. Assumptions are made that academics who are experts already in delivering learning will be able to easily transfer their skills to an online environment. Even if they are provided with some training, what they will require will be minimal. The training will usually be about the mechanics of online learning, as these academics are already experts in learning, so why would you even “insult” them with training about learning!

What can often happen is that the processes and methods that people use in the physical space will be translates verbatim to an online space. It will not taken into account the challenges of an online environment, or recognise the affordances of said environments. This also ignores the potential and affordances that online environments can bring to learning.

  • Lectures will become webinars.
  • Presentations will become PowerPoint slide decks.
  • Handouts will be Word documents to be downloaded.
  • Verbal communication will be done by e-mail.

The online environment will become a repository of materials that will be forgotten and ignored. The end result will be a lack of engagement by students and a deluge of complaints about this whole online learning experiment.

Writing in a notebook
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The overall experience is expected to be the same, but merely re-creating the physical experience online is often disappointing for both students and academics. Many of the nuances of face to face learning can be lost when moving to online. Part of the issue is that physical learning activities don’t necessarily translate readily into an online environment, the nuances of what makes the face to face so valuable can be lost in translation, similarly the possibilities and affordances of the online space can be lost.

A lecture is more than just someone at the front talking to an audience. There is something about bringing together in a single place, the physicality of that “performance” adds to the whole experience. Though the oral nature of the delivery can be captured, the non-verbal aspects will often not be noticed, but are equally important as the verbal ones.Students will share a common experience, and they will have a similar experience to others in the room.

As webinar can be used as an online lecture, but you won’t have the non-verbal cues, even when using a webcam. The academic will miss out on the whole group experience and their non-verbal language in response to the lecture.

Using webinar technology can allow for a complex and fluid conversation to happen at the same time as the lecture. Using the chat functionality can enhance and enrich the experience. In my experience it helps to have someone else in the webinar space to manage the chat area, to respond, to provide links and content and to summarise at appropriate times to the academic delivering the webinar feedback from the group. It’s really hard for one person to do all that and deliver an engaging lecture. Another aspect that is often forgotten that online delivery (be it audio or video) appears flatter than when seeing it for “real” so one thing I do is up my performance a notch or two. Take it too far and you will become Alan Partridge, but it will make for better delivery if you brighten and enhance your delivery.

Of course webinars don’t have to be a lecture, they could be a group discussion. Why replace the lecture with a webinar, when you could replace it with a podcast of various experts discussing the topic of the lecture. Of course online means you can bring in experts from across the country (if not the world) to discuss the topic and record it for future listening by students.One of the affordances of online is that it doesn’t have to be live, it can be recorded and then watched by the student at a time and place to suit them. Suddenly this opens up a wide range of opportunities, why just record yourself in a lecture theatre, why not take to the road and turn your lecture into a radio programme. Why not create a film about what you want to talk about? Of course this takes time and effort, but sharing and collaboration (much easier to do these days online) means you could share the load with others in your field.

It is easy to upload files to an online environment, but in isolation what is the context. If you create great PowerPoint slide decks for your lectures, do they work without the lecture? Personally my slides are usually just images or single words, that look nice, but really without the talk tell you nothing I was talking about! There are tools and processes out there that can turn simple PowerPoint files into online videos through recording an audio track as they are presented. You could do this live (using webinar technology) or pre-record using the built-in tools. Something to recognise that these files can be quite large, will your students have the connectivity and the bandwidth outside campus to access them? Will you need to provide alternatives?

Though for many PowerPoint is a familiar tool, there are other tools in the toolbox that can create engaging online content. Some even allow you to add interactive elements. How you create good online content isn’t just about the technical aspects of using said tools, but also recognising the pedagogical principles that need to be followed when designing online learning content. If you start to add quizzes or questions, there is a whole new raft of skills that may need developing.

reading a Kindle
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Though it might be thought uploading Word documents to the online environment, is one way to get content to students, there are so many other resources out there to create an effective online learning experience. The subject of e-resources could fill a book and often does. Understanding what is possible with resources is one thing, understanding the wealth of resources out there is something else.

We know that everyone loves e-mail, and it is often the default online communication method for many. However using a single tool for all types and formats of communication is not effective or efficient. Who really wants their sacred inbox to be filled with numerous conversations and questions that are getting in the way of other “important” work e-mails. If you have more than one cohort, then it becomes even more difficult. Conversations are really hard to follow in e-mail, mainly as people don’t respond in a linear manner, they add their comment to the top of their reply. For conversations and discussion, e-mail is a really bad online tool, especially when there are so many better alternatives out there for doing this kind of thing.

I find e-mail is best for the one-to-one messaging (and occasional) conversation and for the broadcast style one-to-many messages (though even then I think there are better alternatives out there for even that kind of message). Using appropriate platforms for online conversations opens up a range of learning possibilities that could not happen in the offline world as well as re-creating the conversations students and academics have.

Overall there is more to online learning then learning the mechanics of online learning. That equally applies to students as well as academics. Don’t assume people can do online learning, there are skills, techniques and possibilities that need to be thought about and taken onboard. As well as the mechanics of using the system, there is the how of online learning, the process of learning that also needs to be considered. Really it should be considered first and then deliver the technical training.

So how are you approaching the subject of online learning with your academics? What works? What challenges have you come across and how did you overcome them?

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