Changing the debate on remote learning

Talking about L&T on Twitter is often a rather niche pursuit; one for the specialists and enthused.

But from time to time, it’s possible to get a wider set of views, as happened to me last week.

I’d posted a pretty rhetorical question about the image of online teaching, off the back of Alex’s comment:

For reasons best-known to himself, a well-known radio presenter retweeted me, resulting in a large number of responses, which you can read by clicking on the tweet above.

The responses covered a lot of ground, and highlighted some of the different dimensions we might want to engage with.

To reiterate my starting point, there remains a strong tendency to see distance/remote/online learning as inferior to face-to-face modes, something that is not, and cannot be, ever as good as ‘the real thing’.

To take that one step further, I wonder if part of why we often see Oxbridge held up as a gold standard of education is because it’s so intensely face-to-face, with one-to-one or one-to-two instruction, in person. That face-time must be good, no?

Pulling back out to face-to-face in general, part of comes down to the perceived disintermediation: it’s you and the instructor, there, just doing your thing. The other modes involve various kinds of technology to engage or facilitate communication: a computer screen, a workbook, etc.

Certainly, that additional layer does require close attention, but it does not necessarily preclude effective and efficient learning. Just as you’ve all seen a disaster in the classroom at some point, no method is inevitably fool-proof or ‘better’.

Likewise, the capacity for responsiveness and on-the-fly adjustment is something that comes up repeatedly in critiques of distance learning: the workbook can’t ‘see’ that you’ve not understood concept X.

But again, that is to take a workbook as the sole element of how that learning operates, when typically you are engaging in multiple streams of content and activity, precisely to ensure that content is tackled from multiple directions, maximising the chances of successful learning.

Again, as someone who tried and failed to do some trigonometry with my son this weekend, in-person instruction doesn’t always stick either [for me, more than for him, to be clear].

Ultimately, the standards of ‘good’ teaching remain the same as always: clarity of learning objectives; alignment of objectives, content and assessment; and engagement with students’ needs.

None of that is platform-dependent or only possible in person. Instead, it’s about us, as instructors, working to produce effective learning environments for our students, whatever the circumstances we find them to be.

And if this all sounds a bit self-serving, then you’d be right, since I’m moving in May this year to the Open University, one of the world’s leading distance-learning institutions, so you’ll be getting a lot more of this kind of thing from me, and less of the empty-room exercises. Although I mention it, maybe that could work…