Friday, September 4, 2015

Digital Learning is the Present and the Future

In reviewing Clare Howell Major's book "Teaching Online", Sandra Leaton Gray writes "Digital learning may be the future, but the present is more uncertain" (Times Higher Education, 3 September 2015). No, e-learning is not the future, it is the here and now. It may be called flipped, or blended, or just "the notes are on the web", but having an on-line component in a university course is now commonplace. Within five years I expect it will be 80% of all education at the upper secondary and higher education.

I have not read Clare Howell Major's book, but this review seems to be, at least in part, about the reviewer's  skepticism of e-learning than the book itself. It may be uncertain in some UK universities (more about that later), but in Australia at least digital learning is now routine.

Courses which are entirely on-line are rarer than blended, but even Australia's leading research institution, the Australian National University, is offering 125 on-line courses for 2016 (19 undergraduate and 106 graduate), plus a new on-line Law degree.

Sandra Leaton Gray comments "... you sit at home and converse on a forum with other committed students and a leading lecturer at a world-class university ...". That is not a vision of the future, I have been teaching postgraduates on-line at a world class university (and lesser institutions)  for six years. This was after an epiphany in 2008, when I announced to a class of ANU students it would be my last lecture (ever).  It has taken years to learn how to teach on-line, but it now seems very routine.

There are problems with the quality of some on-line courses. This is more of a problem at the undergraduate level, where students need more hand-holding. The more mature the students and more real-world work experience they have, the easier they are to teach (especially on-line).

It helps if the staff are trained and qualified to design and deliver on-line courses. There are decades of research and practical experience, on what to do and how to do it, what works and what doesn't work. Higher Education institutions have been offering specialized qualifications in on-line learning (previously called "Distance Education") for at least twenty years.

On-line learning is not that different to other teaching, or at least that is what I told the staff at University of Cambridge a few weeks ago, when they asked me for some tips to teach their graduates on-line (Cambridge has adopted the Moodle free open source learning management system, from Australia).

And this is what I will be telling teachers at the IT education stream of the Australian Computer Society Annual Canberra Conference next week.

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