Skills of online learners

I was reading this post via an email my friend Tim sent out to the ALT mailing list. I’ve been a student and teacher offline and online, so thought I’d respond to the tips. I think these also are relevant to the discussions on MOOCs and where I see the problems with them. So these are the skills that the article says learners must have:

Highly motivated: yes … but then that’s true offline too. No-one offline is pushing you to hand in your homework, or at least in no educational establishment i’ve worked in people do. I think it’s good to keep an eye out for students who are struggling, or not attending, and approach them if they need help, but ultimately the responsibility to do the work is theirs. I think the big difference here is not between online and offline, but between synchronous and asynchronous. With asynchronous courses it’s difficult to see who’s not doing the work because they never have to show up. At least with a synchronous component then there’s a chance to see who is stopping turning up, and contact them to see if everything is OK.

Strong time management: yes true. But I am going to say something that’s recently occurred to me about time management. I have the worst time-management skills imaginable. I faff, procrastinate, get distracted. I’ve recently quit using FB so much, I limit myself to alternate days. but it did sap a lot of my time. I now blog instead, which is possibly worse. My working pattern over the last week or so has been … get up at around 9:00 make a coffee, lie on the sofa to drink it. Under a duvet. One of my cats then usually climbs in next to me. The purring sends me off to sleep and i wake up about 11. I then make another coffee, Then lunch. Then start work about 2 or maybe 3 depending on how long i faff for. By the time i get the emails out of the way it’s about five, which means it’s only then i get the work started that i need to. Yet I always get it done. OK, I might work until about 10 or 11, and so have skipped the gym rather a lot. And I maybe don’t socialise a lot. But I still get it done. So maybe brilliant time management isn’t the most important thing. Self-discipline I’d put in the same category.

Technology skills. Yes support for these is important, but it’s best not to make the mistake that young people are used to technology and mature people aren’t. It’s about the appropriate use of them, and the skills required in using a forum, or in blogging, aren’t necessarily transferable from being able to use FB or Twitter.

Being highly communicative. I think this is one of the most important things. I was really shocked when meeting a new group of PhD students that some of them were put off by my suggestion that they needed to contribute to seminars to get experience of presenting, and taking part in forums. One or two just wanted to do the private ivory tower study tucked away in a library somewhere. I may have over-emphasised it, one actually seemed to reconsider the whole thing as a result. I’d rather people got a solitary education than none at all, but to do so is very poor preparation for life, particularly an academic one. The only social value for doing research is that you actually tell someone about it.

So in an online course, it’s not enough to just read the materials, it’s also about contributing to the forums, commenting on others’ posts, and attending the synchronous sessions. For me this is what felt lacking from the MOOC i went on (I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the very first ever MOOC back in 2008). There was no-one communicating with me. Sure there were plenty of emails, blog posts, stuff in the RSS feeds, and i posted on forums and blogged. I think my blog is somewhere on wordpress actually, i keep getting spam on it anyway. But in all those 20 000 people, no-one ever spoke to me, or answered a post. It was a very lonely experience. Getting past that could be to form MOOCs into smaller learning sets, so that there is encouragement and extrinsic motivation by manufacturing an obligation to participation to support the education of others. Extrinsic motivation (aka emotional blackmail) is always an effective means to keep people on task and on schedule.

One thing we can do as educators though is build up a better idea of what people need to communicate to each other. On the first of the online courses I’ve attended as a student we were in small groups and these worked very well. However i was workign part time, so dedicated three days a week to the job, three days a week to the course. I told the convenor this, but didn’t pass that info on to anyone else. Three weeks in I had quite a fraught email from the course tutor complaining that I was letting the group down by not responding. This was though during the three days I was working. Apparently she’d had another member of the group extremely distressed by this. I explained my work pattern again and it smoothed everything out.

However, the lesson is, yes we need learning sets to make online learning work, and .. overall that this needs commitment etc to the set … we also need to be clear about what our commitments are to the group (and as teachers get our students to be explicit about that). Bottom line is, online works, but those periods in online courses where the others aren’t actually online can seem particularly daunting.