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Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Teacher's Experiences of being a Distance Learning student

I'm just about half way through my final unit of a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching, a course delivered through Open Universities Australia. I do have a Ph.D, but it didn't take me long after my first horrifying weeks of teaching undergraduates, back in 2005, to realise that I was not really a very good teacher. I know a lot of people would never actually admit this to themselves. I've got more years under my belt now, but I still have much to learn about designing and delivering good programs to my students.

The final assignment of the course is to redesign one of our currently taught programs as a distance education course - a task I am as yet unsure how to tackle. But first things first - What am I making of the experience of being simultaneously a University level teacher, and a student - again?

There is much chatter in the Twitterverse among educators in the United States and Canada - Australian and British teachers only pop up now and again in my timeline - about the growing potential of distance, or e-learning. At the moment, everyone is excited, or disappointed, about whether their proposals were accepted for the upcoming conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, in Philadelphia. If I wasn't tapped into this social network, I now realise, I would be terribly ignorant about what is going on and changing in my own profession. Academic journals just don't get one excited about change!!

I do feel that much of this current interest in e-learning has to do with a general embracing of technology as an enhancement for more conventional classroom activities. There is research by respected scholars to support the trend towards engaging with learners through computer technology, and through social media which is supported by mobile devices. See for example the wonderful recent edited collection by Ulf-Daniel Ehlers and Dirk Schneckenberg - Changing Cultures in Higher Education, which goes way beyond the growing impact of technology in higher education contexts, and engages with questions of how education policy, organisational culture, technological development and globalised knowledge intersect to stimulate innovation, and direct change.

Not only learners are being swept up in a second, or third, wave of technology change, but educators themselves are enhancing their teaching practices by engaging with a wider network of professionals through the ease of access brought by mobile devices and social media. The world of e-learning is itself a diverse mixture of platforms, offering potential to all participants in the education landscape - not just students. This shouldn't be forgotten. Making a teacher's or an administrator's job easier, more enjoyable, streamlining administration tasks and enabling ease of communication with students and colleagues, cannot be underestimated. But there is substantial resistance among both teachers and students.

On a side note - so far I haven't printed out any course materials. I uploaded all the course modules and readings to my dropbox using my desktop computer. Then I opened the files from dropbox using the Noterize application on my iPad. I read the course notes, highlighted important sections with my stylus pen, made notes for my blog posts, and posted my blog posts to the LMS all from my iPad. I'm writing my assignment in Pages. I can do it in a coffee shop, if I want to.

Of course, more pragmatic reasons for the growing interest in e-learning is to enable wider, and more equitable access to quality education, and to expand the horizons of once place and culture bound classrooms and lecture theatres. The course I am doing is administered from Perth, Australia. It's students are located in many Australian cities, and other countries - mostly from South Asia. I really value this diversity, and the contributions made by the participants on the discussion board this term about their experiences as teachers in disciplines very different to my own, have been invaluable for me as I negotiate the readings and tackle the assessment tasks.

It wasn't always this good, however. This is the first time out of the four units I've done since 2008, where discussion posts made up a substantial component of the assessment. I can't begin to explain how much better the experience is, when participants are actually participating. You would think that as both adults, and teachers - presumably highly motivated individuals - these educators would be keen to share their thoughts and experiences on a discussion board. But no - when given the option, most would choose to lurk silently. Several people posting on the Welcome and Introductions module expressed fears and anxieties about making public their thoughts and ideas to their fellow students. I don't have the same fears now - but I did when I thought that what I might say could be seen as ignorant, or unimportant, by what I imagined were more experienced people who would judge me as a novice.

What I now know is that I could have learned from those more experienced teachers. As a more experienced teacher now myself, I am somewhat relieved to find that I am still lacking in substantial ways, and that other teachers who might see me as experienced, have much to teach me.

When I try to transfer this insight to designing a distance-education course for students, the one thing which strikes me hardest, is to be cognizant of the anxieties many people feel about being publicly exposed. I don't think this is a reason NOT to make discussion board posts, or blogs, or flip-cam movies or voice threads, compulsory. Rather, this challenging aspect of distance education - which is to expose yourself to and engage with others - could be more highly rewarded. And yet, there are inevitably students who sit silently all term in our face to face classes. This doesn't mean they aren't engaged and learning, however. One thing e-learning, or distance learning has going for it, is that there are diverse ways the shy and the anxious can engage, such as sending blog post directly to the instructor, rather than to the LMS. I don't believe students should be compelled to be exposed - but definitely encouraged.

Building in flexible options for participation is easier in an on-line program. This is one of the strengths of more general kinds of e-learning, and a good argument for why higher-education needs to embrace change, innovation, and recognise that not all learners (or all lecturers / professors) have the same needs, or the same levels of comfort, within this second or third-wave of change.

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