Promoting Distance

Also published on the Educational Technology and Change journal

Recently I have arrived at the opinion that developing a viable distance learning offering is the way to go for Higher Education. Much of the e-learning I've been involved in has concentrated on developing blended learning where there was previous just face-to-face. This is largely like banging your head against a brick wall. This policy is often seen as a safer, less ambitious step along the learning technologies route. THIS IS WRONG!! It's wrong because most of the time the educators and the students don't really want to use technology. They'll do a bit for admin but for learning, no way. It's a face-to-face course. Why tamper with it. I am of the opinion that this is misguided but it's not a battle worth fighting (for now). Fighting this resentment is unnecessary. The most important point is that the participants have signed up a face-to-face experience. Some might not mind adding a bit of technology but it shouldn't take over. Shoe-horning e-learning into an already designed course is like swimming upstream with half the people not knowing how to swim. These metaphors aren't great but the sense is right.

Pushing to develop a number of quality distance learning offerings is, I think, the way forward. Certainly, for any educational institution is a way of seperating you from the competition. I don't there's enough market research in this area but I am convinced there are more and more people out there who can't attend face-to-face but still want to study. With distance learning, the learning is only delivered online. Therefore, the students will engage. They have no choice. But feeling towards this mode of learning is largely eradicated past the the few couple of weeks. For this to work in HE, you need entire MAs offered online, not just one or two modules. This way the market you want can be tapped into to. It's pointless having the odd module online. If a student can attend one module face-to-face, the chances are he/she can, and will want to, attend the others face-to-face. The main problem we face with promoting distance learning is convincing academic to teach in this way. Unfortunately, I fear this problem is underestimated. There's also the issue of whether to run it in parallel with the face-to-face. What about the capacity for this? It's a bold move - one that is hard to take.

I'm pleased and excited that the Institute of Education (my place of work) is pushing the distance learning agenda and working towards increasing what we offer at a distance - we're using the term "Open Mode" (which I like). It's the first step on an important journey in an uncertain time for HE.

Time and Space for learning design

A mantra you often here with regard to technology in education is designing the learning first and then using the best medium to deliver this learning be it technological or not. Clarence Fisher puts this better:

"We cannot choose tools and then find ways to use them. We must consider the skills and abilities that we want our students to have and then choose the paths to help them get there."

Of course, I agree with this and I think I've said so on this blog many times. The gap comes with the fact that many educators simply don't know what tools are available and what they can be used for. I am often surprised by how seemingly established online tools have not penetrated into the real world of education.

One relevant issue here is the problem of allowing our educators the time and the space to think about their teaching. The profile of this activity isn't high enough. If it was, showcase events of new tools would occur as a matter of course; pedagogical discussion and debate in relation to such tools would be standard. Instead, such activity is anecdotal and the domain of the enthusiastic few.

My observation, therefore, concerning the above quote is that it applies only to a utopian educational system. I'm not saying learning design doesn't happen, but it's our system is not designed to accomodate assimilating new tools into our teaching and learning. Such tools therefore go unnoticed and become subject to misinformation and misinterpretation.

Formal/Informal learning

It's been a while since I last blogged. This is mainly due to getting married and going on honeymoon. A welcome distraction from my Learning Technology Learning.

Recently I've found myself reading more academic articles than blogs. I aimed to catch up with my blog reading but it's been enlightening to gain some academic perspectives. Overall, blog reading is easier. It fits in with my informal learning ethos and lends itself to the extraction of ideas which I can then weave together as I reflect. Academic article reading is hard but rewarding. Hopefully I can achieve a good balance of learning from both in the future.

A recent bit of learning has been around formal learning on reading the paper Theories of formal and informal learning in the world of web 2.0 by Charles Crook (2008). He says:

"It is the act of deliberate teaching that ‘formalises’ learning. But deliberate teaching is complemented by deliberate learning. Ideally, both parties in the
educational contract have a degree of this intent – albeit not equally well or equally enthusiastically developed."

It is easy to bash formal education but the above reminds us that, in essence, its a wonderful thing. It's about deliberately engendering learning and this should be celebrated. So what's the place of informal learning? I promote informal learning because I know how powerful it can be and I would disagree with the notion that the only "proper" learning is done through formal education. Where it's good quality a formal course is the best and easiest way of accelerate your learning in a certain subject. But such instances are not always available when, and where, you want them. This is where informal learning comes into play. It's take a certain skillset and mindset to do it effectively but these can be learned. And certainly from my perspective, technology is fundamental to being able to realise it.

The above quote hints that motivation isn't always there with formal learning. Essentially in schools, we are forcing people to learn whether they want to or not. Or, at least, we are trying to. Informal learning only exists where there is motivation to learn. But if we took away formal education I'm not so sure that everyone would jump into doing it themselves enthusiastically. The learner control aspect is often mooted is a big plus the informal learning and that this can aid with learners who are disenfranchised from formal education. Here there is a clear role for informal learning and what we need are processes and support mechanism in place to help learner get started.