27 February 2009

On-line learning (6 and final)

This is a response to the final reflective task of the "On-line tutoring" course, but I hope it may be of interest to anyone else who happens to stumble by here.

First, and most important, I need to say how much I was impressed by the quality of the course, its design, materials and tutorial support. To declare an interest, it is offered by the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development which happens to be my current temporary employer---but I wanted to work with them because of what I knew of their work, rather than I want to puff them because I am working there this semester.

And to look at this within a framework; following (roughly) Kirkpatrick's (1994) four levels of evaluation;
  1. Did I enjoy it? No. The only time which came close to "enjoyment" was the final week's scenarios exercise. But clearly I was in a minority. I reject the notion of learning styles, but I do have preferences (which are at this level rather than 2,3,4) and this approach--and it doesn't matter what "this approach" is--just doesn't suit me. See below for expansion.

  2. Did I learn anything? Yes. A lot. I'm not sure it was the same as the course set out to teach, though, and that is an interesting issue about this medium for learning. More on this below.

  3. Will it make any difference to my practice? Yes, although since I am semi-retired this is not significantly important. It reinforced what I already knew about the commitment required of the on-line tutor (more, it has to be said, from the model set by the Centre--which was not stinting in its allocation of resources--and the tutors themselves, who were always there, than from what the course explicitly taught.) The difference it will make (at which point some people may legitimately heave a sigh of relief) is that I shall be even more reluctant to tutor on-line than I was before.

  4. Will that affect the practice of my organisation? Probably not in the case of my current employer, but it might make a difference to the advice I offer to others in the future, and particularly to my approach to a staff development session I am scheduled to offer for another university in a couple of weeks' time on just this topic.
More idiosyncratically;
  • The course emphasised on-line group interaction using the Virtual Learning Environment in particular but Web 2.0 tools in general;

  • I found this difficult for various reasons. In their inventories of significant features of the design of on-line tutoring systems (the penultimate activity of the course), many members identified "comfort with the technology" as a basic issue to address. I am comfortable with some of the technology as this blog testifies, but I dislike VLEs. They seem invariably to complicate things which can be done more easily with other web tools.

  • But that was not the major point. Diana Laurillard's (2001, maybe later--I'm being cavalier about referencing--this is a blog, remember, count yourself lucky to get any references at all...!) Laurillard's point was that e-learning tools need to be judged principally by their capacity to approximate the richness of a face-to-face learning conversation.

  • Real conversation wanders. It moves up and down through levels of abstraction (Dale and Bruner); it drifts off by free association and returns to the main topic (sometimes); it is not constrained by rigid topic boundaries. This is very difficult indeed to replicate in an on-line environment; threaded posts, tags etc. all help, but they do require conscious and constraining decisions on the part of the poster, and complex discussions are defined as much by what people do not access (still less read, still less respond to...) as by what they do.

  • I was inhibited by this. One week I hardly posted at all. Each of the list headings I looked at seemed to prescribe a certain kind of response--one which I did not want to make. I looked in vain for one labelled "None of the above" or "Contrarian"! But. I know... I am not criticising, just discussing a real problem to which I do not have a solution. And if you think lists labelled as above are a solution, think through their likely impact on the whole. And look at the research...

    • Ah! The research! Considerable effort was devoted to the scholarship of learning and teaching on-line. There was a required textbook and links throughout to useful papers. Some of them were thought-provoking (as is this post, I hope) with plenty of references to previous papers, some endorsed, some qualified, some opposed. All the stuff of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning).

    • I may well be wrong here, because I cannot claim to have traced to their roots all the references cited in the readings for the course, but although they may be scholarly and (more important) informed by the experience of practice, they are a crust of accretions of legitimated opinion.

      • I confess it is now six years since I really pursued this. I was supervising a master's student (in learning and teaching in nursing, specifically) whose dissertation related to e-learning in in-service nursing education. She had produced a very scholarly literature review, comparing and discussing different models... I had pushed her for hard evidence behind these peer-reviewed and published papers. She was upset--who was I to query the evidence? So I undertook the trail back through half a dozen of her sources, to make the point. It took a long time (before Google Scholar) and was I confess incomplete. (Come to think of it, why did I not publish? The evidence is discarded now!) But three generations back on six of her sources, roughly 216 sources, I found only ten which were unequivocally empirically researched, and at least two of those relied on research instruments which have themelves been questioned...

        • Wandering now, but... I have been reading Nick Davies' book on the state of journalism*, which talks about "churnalism", where the demands of the system lead to stories being repeated without checking, and to rumour mills, moral panics and vulnerability to PR... It happens in educational "research" too. Next weekend, in one of my other jobs, I shall be working on a study day for 350 students. The visiting speaker will be Frank Coffield, the principal protagonist in the de-bunking of the egregious scam of "learning styles"--as a spurious, self-serving, commercially brilliant and politically convenient load of ordure. It, and other associated fads such as "accelerated learning" have prospered because pressured academics and practitioners have grasped at straws--and these ideas hovered tantalisingly on the edges of common sense (whatever that is...).

  • Back to the mainstream. Consensual, interactive, social constructed knowledge was privileged (sorry about the jargon). We did not explore the nature of authority on-line. And that is a big, but concealed issue. (I am reminded of a phrase from "Cold Comfort Farm" which cannot be repeated nowadays.) The "subject matter" of the course was considered as an inert given, in the sense that it would not affect other processes, or indeed be affected by them. It's a noble gas, man :-) It isn't.

But I want also to thank my fellow participants. No, I didn't really get to know you. Sometimes I am sure that my tone was irksome and boorish. But your responses were unfailingly courteous and constructive, or you benignly ignored me--probably the best strategy (sometimes I wish I could ignore me, but it doesn't seem to work...)

The above goes a fortiori for the long-suffering tutors.

Many thanks!

* Davies N (2009) Flat Earth News London; Vintage Books.


  1. And Your thought provoking postings added value to the course.

  2. Hello James

    As usual provacative and contrarian, but based upon sound thoughtful analysis and and then written with passion, emotive stuff much of which I agree with.

    I have never advocated adopting or pandering to the learning styles of the learners I work with rather it is important that they can adapt to the others around them, student as learners and lecturers as learners.

    Asysnchronous conversations like this do not carry or contain the ahahs and mental penny dropping that can occur face to face when the body language and eye contact make for the visceral communications channels that augment the spoken or written word.

    Keep blogging and as I have said before I think your websites are full of suprises and useful practical pragmatic advice.

    You chastised me some while back for not sharing, but I have never had the confidence to publish in writing or on the internet and have published little academically - I am an ex-chemist who still hates writing, but loves working with learners.

    Rob at a Northern University


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.