Is a revolution about to happen: thoughts on online learning

Social media is awash with discussions about online learning. By and large, secondary school teachers are highly sceptical of the online approach and this is not surprising given the age group that they work with: digital tools will never replace a skilled and compassionate teacher. Ask any academic why they studied, say, chemistry, at college, and they’ll inevitably mention an inspirational teacher.

At third level, things are more mixed. The educational “futurists” (the ones who talk about 21st century skills, “jobs that don’t exist” etc.) and the Edtech companies see this time as game-changing and are chomping at the bit to seize such a golden opportunity to, well, make money. Many academics who have built their careers on promoting (with good intentions, no doubt) what are called “student-centred” approaches probably see this time as a turning point, a point when their ideas are finally vindicated. King of 21st century skills, Andreas Schleicher, education guru of the OECD, a man who seems determined to ignore his own data, worries that students will find it very difficult to go back to normal, so much fun will they have had learning online. Libertarians who object to the state spending so much on higher education see online learning as the perfect compromise because of its cost effectiveness in comparison with campus-based education.

Most academics, reasonable people like myself (!), are happy to stay in the middle ground, happy to use online approaches to enhance our teaching. This year, for example, I decided to reply to student emails seeking help with some engineering  problem or other by creating a mini screencast rather than a long convoluted email. I think this approach is better because it engages more of the student’s senses and is generally more “dynamic”. Time will tell though. We’ll need to get a lot of feedback from our students before we jump to conclusions.

One aspect of this entire conversation, one which is rarely discussed, concerns disciplines. We tend to talk a lot about “education” as if it was a homogeneous activity. Some years ago I published a paper on interdisciplinarity (inspired by the fact that I teach on an interdisciplinary programme) and in the paper I talk a bit about “signature pedagogies”. This was an area I was interested in because I teach chemical engineering to students who spend most of their time studying biology. And it was really by chatting with students in the lab that I realised that the way I taught chemical engineering, and they way they learned chemical engineering, was quite different from the way they were taught biology and also how they learned biology. Chemical engineering required them to study by solving problems whereas they studied biology by assimilating as much information as they could. This was a big challenge to them (and still is) and I have to admit I do look to heaven when someone proposes that we adopt phenomenon-based learning, or to use the current buzzword, challenge-based learning.

So the point is this: online approaches (well, what I really mean is “blended approaches”) might be fine for some disciples – like chemical engineering: but what about English literature or the classics or languages in general? I think we need to be a lot more specific and discipline-led when discussing “education” and particular digital approaches. The dominant paradigm in modern education systems is that higher education is little more than a preparation for the 21st century workplace. But HE is about far more than piling them in, doing some social engineering on them (“we need to teach empathy!”), and letting them loose on the world, ready to fit-in with the culture of some large corporation or other.

As international student numbers collapse, universities are going to be seeking revenue from anywhere it can. Corporately packaged and uniformly branded, online courses developed by academics for undergraduates, will likely be monetised. I feel uneasy about that.

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