Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Someone to watch over me

One of the main arguments for online education is that it allows you to study at your own pace. Course material, asynchronous discussion and collaborative tools let you study whenever you want and wherever you are. This works for those who have the necessary self-discipline and study skills but it could be claimed that this flexibility is the Achilles heel of online education. Most people lack the necessary skills to take advantage of online education and as long as those skills are not developed in schools, adult and vocational education this mismatch will continue.

Laura Vanderkam questions whether we are overestimating our self-study skills in her article on Fast CompanyCan people really learn at their own pace?. The article's focus is on corporate training but the conclusions are relevant even to higher education and in particular MOOCs. An increasing amount of training is carried out online and the flexibility and scalability of online training clearly appeals to top management since it allows training to take place whenever the staff have time and does not demand costly formal training days. However when left to our own devices it's hard to prioritise online learning since there are always more pressing tasks that demand attention. Independent online learning can work if there is a clear link to tangible career-enhancing rewards or you have high internal motivation. Otherwise it's hard to keep up the momentum and the result is that we drop out or slowly fade out of the course. I suspect that many of the people who fail to complete a MOOC simply didn't have the positive momentum that is provided by clear rewards, supportive teachers and a sense of belonging to a learning community.

Even if I feel perfectly comfortable with independent self-study I still find it hard to stay focused on an online course. I have a number of self-study projects that I start up with great enthusiasm but which fade away after a few weeks of admirable concentration. I've started studying many new languages this way acquiring a few basics but then when it gets more complicated I tend to find other things to do instead. A couple of years ago I signed up for a very traditional evening course in Arabic for beginners with the aim of at least learning the alphabet and basic phrases. The teacher was friendly but the teaching methods were extremely old-fashioned and uninspiring. I achieved my objectives mostly due to self-study but what kept me going was the "fear" of not keeping up with the class and "disappointing" the teacher. Despite my advancing years I became a schoolboy again and the simple motivation of not wanting to be worst in the class meant that I kept studying during the week. There was no interest in a continuation course so I thought I could go on independently using all the open learning opportunities I write so often about. The problem was that there was noone to impress, no class to keep up with, no teacher to please. It sounds incredibly childish but it points to a key problem with self-study.

The challenge for all online education, including MOOCs, is providing the support, encouragement, challenge and sense of common purpose needed to keep learners on track. I don't think it matters so much whether you meet a teacher face-to-face or online but most of us need to feel that someone is watching over us and has expectations. That person is often a teacher but it could also be a peer group. The most important factor is that someone out there wants me to succeed and wants to check how I'm getting on. Someone to watch over me.

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