By Jim Shimabukuro
The University of Edinburgh MSc in E-learning program’s “Manifesto for Teaching Online” is a bold move to break the chains that bind completely online to traditional and blended instructional models. The basic assumption is that onground and online are fundamentally different and that whereas approaches to one are well established, approaches to the other aren’t precisely because little or no effort is being made to fully understand the differences. The list of 20 tenets provides a useful starting point for a discussion, and the developers are to be commended for opening this discussion to the world.
The first tenet, “Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit,” decries the current practice of viewing online as simply a crippled or inferior extension of traditional or blended instruction, a second best alternative when the first is unavailable. This statement provides the raison d’etre for the manifesto, the radical view that “distance,” the factor that distnguishes one from the other, has the potential to not only provide a different learning environment but a superior one. In other words, the twin concepts of anytime and anywhere are the foundations for a whole new approach to teaching and learning.
The second tenet, “The best online courses are born digital,” is an amplification of the first, a declaration that methods brewed for onground classrooms fail to take advantage of the VLE (virtual learning environment) and are, thus, ill-suited for online teaching. Online pedagogy, at its best, must make full use of the features available in the anytime-anywhere classroom. The fourth tenet, “‘Best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context,'” is an extension of the second. The message here is that best onground may not be best online.
The third, “By redefining connection we find we can make eye contact online,” challenges perhaps the most widespread misconception of critics of online learning who insist that F2F (face-to-face) is possible only in same-place, same-time, in-person encounters. The fact is there are F2F forms unique to the VLE where people can interact with others either individually or in small groups, both synchronously and asynchronously. And these F2F meetings could be literal via video cams or figurative via speech or text. Furthermore, the ways to conduct these anywhere-anytime F2F exchanges are proliferating, growing to include smartphones and other mobile communication devices.
The seventh, “Online courses are prone to cultures of surveillance,” is a swipe at the tendency of administrators and researchers to mistake evaluations, at mindnumbing frequencies in mindblowing forms, for facilitation or management. I have to wonder if the same effort were devoted to assessing onground instructional practices, we might end up closing our classrooms for good. The point here is that fair play with a large dose of common sense is needed: Rushing to incessant judgment in the research and development phase of a new approach is a surefire way to kill innovation.
The fifteenth, “Place is differently, not less, important online,” is aimed at critics who can’t see the ground in virtual space. Yes, online teachers and students do live and work on the ground. When they launch into the internet, both feet remain on the ground. Yes, place remains important. The difference is that distance between places has been shortened or bent, if you will, like two points on a line, drawn across a sheet of paper, that appear to be at the same place when the paper is folded. Much of our communication is based on the importance of a person being at a place where another can’t be, reporting on an object or event that she’s observing firsthand to someone hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The sixteenth, “Closed online spaces limit the educational power of the network,” is a jab at the practice of transporting traditional clasroom controls to the VLE. The same walls that prove so effective in shutting out the “noise” of the outside world are counterintuitive in the VLE. The strength of online is openness to almost infinite sources of information and interaction. Setting up walls in the VLE would be like limiting library access to just one stack of books. The seventeenth, “Online spaces can be permeable and flexible, letting networks and flows replace boundaries,” is an extension of the sixteenth.
The eighteenth, “Course processes are held in a tension between randomness and intentionality,” is critical to understanding the difference between online and onground. In onground classes, time and events are controlled by the teacher, and the sequence is linear and lockstep. In online, the control is handed over to the student, for the most part, with the teacher indicating start and end dates and times. In other words, students decide when they’ll journey and the paths they’ll take to arrive at the destinations. Individual progress is seldom if ever linear, and the meanderings are recursive and frequently punctuated by leaps from one section in a document to another in a different document. At any given time, a student may have a dozen different pages open on her desktop, and movement among them is guided by an internal coherence that’s clear to the student but unfathomable to the observer.
The nineteenth, “Online teaching should not be downgraded into ‘facilitation,'” is addressed to those who believe that the teacher, online, must trade “teaching” for “facilitating.” To the contrary, teaching is alive and well in the VLE. However, as stated throughout the manifesto, it’s different, taking on a form that’s determined by the digital environment. For example, the design and plan of the virtual learning spaces that make up the instructor’s portion of the students’ online learning environment must be aesthetically pleasing (sixth tenet) as well as conducive to learning both individually and interactively. This designing is a new form of teaching.
Futhermore, the teacher creates and refers to basic course schedules, content, and activities that require performance and interaction. These, too, are forms of teaching and not just guiding and helping students through canned materials and modules created by others. The implication in the nineteenth tenet is that the teacher must learn and develop technology skills that will allow her to design her own courses rather than simply becoming a technician or facilitator in courses designed by specialists.
These are the tenets that I believe are the most critical in delineating the differences between onground and online teaching. I’m sure some of the others should be included in my discussion, but as of this writing, I tend to see them as descriptive or applicable to both modes of teaching.
In closing, I’d like to say that I’m impressed by the work and the courage of the Edinburgh team. My gut feeling is that, here, we have a group of people who really know what they’re talking about because they’re actually teaching online and asking all the tough questions rather than simply following the lead of so-called instructional technology experts. They’re not merely administrators or researchers looking at online teaching from the outside. They’re actually on the inside, in the trenches, and taking the time to share what they’re learning.
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