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Why online doesn’t need to be distant or lonely

Tony Prince asks what to look for in a web-based learning programme

‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ (Neil Gaiman)

Online learning is widely touted as evidence of our living in the future, of the potential for technology to significantly improve our lives. My own experience online – as learner, tutor and course designer – is however more akin to the quote above. Some courses I’ve enrolled on seem little more than repositories for Word documents. More than one platform I’ve designed for seems intent on limiting the educational opportunities.

This article is intended as a guide, both for those wanting to learn online and for those wishing to design online learning. It’s addressed primarily to the former, though, with a bulleted checklist of what to look for in choosing your online course. The following sections outline what I believe to be the main concerns.

Looking for tutor presence

Some online courses are created to spread access to information – the massive open online courses (Mooc) of Coursera, EDx and Futurelearn, for example. It’s a noble goal, but from my perspective as learner and teacher that spread can stretch the tutor to the point of invisibility. Teaching face to face suggests that it’s not just what you know, or even what you do, but also the way that you do it that gets results. Transmission of information through text simply isn’t enough.

Online the presence of the tutor can come in a variety of forms. A screencast provides you as the participant with both the content and the tutor’s emotional response to it. This personalisation also encourages tutors to consider carefully not just what they are saying but how they support it visually.

Webinars let you see the tutor in real time, working synchronously with them alongside other students. While variations in network reliability and technology can make webinars challenging, the rewards in terms of reinforcing connections between all those involved are worth it.

Tutors can also interact with participants in forums and wikis. While responding to each individual post may be too time consuming, a tutor highlighting key points and drawing attention to the connections between posts can be a significant part of your motivation to engage and continue.

Communicating and collaborating with others

Online education has also been referred to as distance learning. The name is apt, as many such courses make you feel distant from other participants. This is particularly demotivating as most students learn as much from other learners as from the tutor.

When you are separated physically or even geographically from those you are studying with it’s vital that those building the course put communication at the heart of its construction. It’s not just that you get the chance to interact through forums and wikis, but that you have a real and relevant reason for interaction. Communication can precede content, as when you respond to and reflect on a questionnaire, comparing answers. Communication can create content, as with community-researched wikis. But if those asking you to communicate haven’t thought about when, how and most importantly why you are communicating, don’t be surprised if the course starts to feel a lot like learning at a distance.

Tracking position and progress

Online time tends to be shoe-horned into lives. The appeal of online is that you can access the content when you have time. Ironically enough, making the most of this flexibility requires some discipline – blocking out the time you need from the time you have. Courses should help you to do this by giving a clear, realistic indication of how much time you will require for each task, not just each unit.

But there are occasions when offline priorities trump those online, when real life makes itself felt. It’s at times like these that you realise how necessary it is not only to be able to keep track of where you are in the course but to be able to return to that point quickly and easily. It’s also then that you appreciate knowing that someone else knows where you are and what you’re doing, which again reinforces the importance of tutor presence.

Supporting you through the tasks

I’ve talked about the need to reduce distance in terms of the people involved, but distance is also created by the tasks you’re asked to do. Providing tasks of varying length and complexity not only reduces the likelihood that you’ll end up plodding through the material, but allows you to better fit your learning to the time you have available.

Again, tutor presence can play a role in supporting your progress through the use of pre-recorded audio clips or textual comments. You might access these after taking a quiz or filling in a questionnaire, letting you compare your attitudes and approaches to those of others. Tutors can also record responses to questions that have arisen frequently on previous iterations of the course. Part of the joy of online – as a course creator and a learner – is that the content stays around to be revisited, reflected on and (in the best of all worlds) reused.

While the future may be here, it often needs to pay more attention to the best practices of the present and the past in order to be truly effective. In particular, it needs to recognise that the factors which have been found to influence the effectiveness of learning offline have a significant impact online as well.

Tony Prince is Nile’s academic director for tertiary education

Points to note and questions to ask when looking for an online course

• Look for the tutor to be present in the course – not only interacting with participants through forums and wikis, but also presenting information interactively through screencasts and audio commentary. How and how often is the tutor present on the course?

• Ask about the online community – you should be able to learn as much from the others on the course as you do from the tutor and the materials. How do participants communicate and collaborate with each other? How is a sense of community and collaboration built?

• Learn about the tasks being set – you’ll want to be working through tasks that offer a great deal of variety, in terms of how long you work, how hard you have to think, how you get information and how you respond to that information. What kind of tools are used? What kind of tasks are set?

• Ask about how you track your position and progress – getting lost or losing your motivation are all too common occurrences online. How do you keep track of where you are in the course and what you’ve done? How easy is it to get back to what you were doing?