Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

Can learning online be a more ‘human’ experience than learning face-to-face?

July 10, 2009 13 comments

Let me start by saying “I definitely think so”!

Well, I have started this blog to hopefully generate some interesting discussion about the issues surrounding the design, implementation and management of innovative, successful and appropriate online learning and teaching strategies for teachers today. This is my first post!

I have been teaching collaborative design related courses online for about 8 years now, and it has been a constant learning curve. However I have to say that my most rewarding teaching and learning experiences have been online, and if my students are telling the truth, the same can be said for many of them.

For me this has been a great source of interest – given that many academics (and students) still feel that elearning is an isolating, inferior, cost cutting, lazy way of teaching. Teaching online is just like any other form of teaching – it can be done well, and it can be done, erm, let’s just say ‘not-so-well’. For many years online learning suffered a poor reputation from many institutions throwing up poorly conceived content, usually in the form of course notes or lecture powerpoints, with no thought of how to engage and motivate students in this new environment. Anyway this is an old story so I won’t go into detail now, the point is that many teachers still don’t know how to effectively teach online, and this in turn results in dissatisfied students, crying that their online course is some kind of cop out by the institution – in fact a year or so ago, the students at my own institution rated their online learning experience so poorly that an entire department was axed and the whole approach to online learning reconsidered.

Back to the point of this post though. I have developed, supervised and taught in an online masters program since 2007, after teaching various online electives before that at undergraduate level. Students are participating from all around the world, and from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds. Interestingly, the age ranges of these students is an equal spread from around mid twenties to mid sixties, and most students have never learned online before, nor used many social networking tools (yes I was surprised too!).

I have been continually blown away at the level of interaction between the students, and the depth of the relationships that they form with each other in the course of their learning. I have NEVER seen my students invest so much of their personality, knowledge and experience into a class as I have seen in this online environment. They tell me (through informal online discussions, and in formal evaluation reports) that they have gotten to know and trust their online classmates better than any they have known in a traditional face-to-face learning environment, and I have to say so have I (I can remember everyone’s name for one thing, whereas in a face-to-face class I would master this task 2 weeks from the end of semester!).

The reasons for this I think are varied, but primarily I think this has to do with the following:

  • The feeling of anonymity that comes with interacting from behind a screen
  • Everyone gets the chance to contribute equally – no time limits or confidence problems speaking in front of a crowd
  • The design of the assessment tasks – focusing upon collaborative process and idea generation
  • Most interestingly – students’ preconceived reactions to a person’s age, sex or appearance and even disability are eliminated, meaning the social dynamics are more equitable

I have found that the willingness for students to help each other and share knowledge is much higher than in a normal classroom where social cliques are more prevalent. Of course a lot of thought has to go into the course design and the teaching/moderation of the course in order to foster a good level of interaction and trust, but I have found that the natural inclination of students in this course has been to be open, honest and high contributors on the whole.

In short I have found my online teaching to be a much more ‘human’ experience than any face-to-face teaching I have done before. I have gotten to know my students better, and have seen the trust they share with each other deepen improve their learning outcomes.

I would love to hear from other online teachers out there about their thoughts on this, have you found something similar with your online students? Why do you think this is, and how can we enhance our teaching practice to maximise the potential of the social dynamic it creates?

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