Online learning: new worlds of connection in education?

After an eight hour day I race home to put on a load of washing, sit down at my computer, grab the USB headphones, plug them in, tell the household to turn down the music and keep the chatter down, and log on the website that runs my ‘postgrad’ course (it’s a private company but completion of coursework counts for credit at an interstate university’s Master’s program). I log on to the webinar room using some groovy software and lo! I’m in a lecture with what started out as 28 other like-minded students from all around the world, a number that’s now dwindled to 17 by Week 10. We sit in anticipation, positioned on all continents, having prepared ourselves by completing all of the previous week’s tasks. But as I sit and wait I sense that there is slightly less enthusiasm for the offerings ahead than there was when we were all fresh-faced in Week One.

I like the online learning environment. Let’s face it, this form of learning really suits people who love to sit and write at their computer. The webinar is great in that it contains the Powerpoint presentation, a list of online participants including their country of origin (OK, where is SKN?), a chatbox that you can type into (why am I always the funny one?), a live video of the presenter (always feel like I’m watching an ageing DJ with a headset on) and room for ‘interaction’ through our student responses to live surveys posted by one of the admins supporting the whole venture. And then there are the tutorials conducted through web forums.

In doing this course I’ve suddenly discovered that there are at least eight other people from my country involved in the same work enterprise as me. And one is doing exactly what I do. Small world huh? But the thing that most intrigues me is the fact that while I’m new to the enterprise, there are some very highly placed, top management also undertaking the course. Which makes me wonder who’s running things as they stand now…

The company running the program have a host of offerings for students and professionals. And for professional students it seems. There’s resources, readings, more webinars, conferences, their own home-brand of readings and guides and opportunities to participate, present and critique. It’s a whole other world of learning. And they host their own conferences, often in gorgeous European locations that I can only dream of attending. I’d have to present, wouldn’t I?

But the everyday experience of learning this way is strangely satisfying. I feel like I’m in control of the pace of my learning. I can time my course readings, my contributions to web forums and the production and sending of short assignments to my tutor on the other side of the world. It’s a strange intimacy to share your thoughts about a topic with someone you’ve never really interacted with, never met. And at times I feel like I’m being taught by a movie, by eternal Facebooking and via email.

But I don’t really feel connected with the other students. Sure we post on the web forum and some have put up nice photos of themselves, some in work gear and some in leisure gear. Depends on the message you want to send out about yourself I suppose. And there are profiles to read, and some read really well. But there’s no coffee shop, there’s no uni bar, there’s no library to hang out in, no anarchic groups to join. And there’s certainly no social life attached to learning this way. It really is all about the education.

And this is great for the delivery of education. You get to participate in really new ways, ways that suit you and your lifestyle. But I would have hated doing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies this way. It’s mentally stimulating, but socially isolating. And at the end of the day there’s only so much that you can type. And typing just STAYS there on the page seemingly forever, unlike the wisps of conversation that float between people, leaving their impression on your senses and then float away…

I also feel the burden of being the flag-bearer for my place of work, since my work has sponsored my endeavour in this field. What are the expectations going to be of me when I complete this course? Will my contributions be worthy of the expenditure that’s gone my way? If I do OK will they pay my way to take the leadership course on offer through this organisation too? I think there’s too much leadership training on offer and not enough personal leadership training. Hello! Anyone looking for opportunities to teach, here’s a good one.

You don’t create memories about your education in the same way that you do when you experience it ‘live’. I still vividly recall my first tutorial presentation, the time a lecturer (a Professor no less) quoted something that I’d said in a tutorial to a large lecture hall, meeting that bloke who’s now my husband and cementing friendships that have lasted many years. I grappled with catalogues and wandered around the campus participating, living and experiencing my learning which was reinforced in social ways and recreated through discussions, arguments and debates with friends.

But all you have to do now to access higher education is log in to ITunes University or enrol in your local uni’s online offerings or any one of the many local, interstate or even international offerings. And throw money and time at it.

I wonder too about the dropout rate. What’s happened to the other dozen or so people that were with me at the start of our learning journey (everything’s a journey these days)? Have they simply dropped out and done their dough? Have they opted out of participating in the webinars, instead choosing simply to view the recorded version? How’s that for even-further reducing the active participation rate? There’s no corridors to hang out in to find out, no student cafeterias where you can run into people and ask, no other subjects that you’re taking together where you’ll hear about what’s happened. It’s odd really, not knowing your classmates this way.

As an anthropologist I’m taking this all in my stride. I’m just not sure of the terrain here though. Where is my world? Where is my field of interactions? And trying to develop anything that resembles meaningful interactions in this forum is, well, trying. I don’t feel that this is really my group and for the relatively short time that we’re together it’s hard to build bridges, hard to connect really when we’re all just trying to succeed in this adult education online learning experience. I guess it’s just hard to hang out in cyberspace this way. Even with intent.

Perhaps I’m overthinking this, over-reaching the intent and the experience of online learning in this way. As many forms of face-to-face education – especially professional training – move to the online environment we have to wonder about not just the content, or the delivery, but the experience of workers sitting each at their computers undertaking the exact same forms of mandatory or voluntary education and training in isolation in this way. Online training and education take many forms: some are interactive and some are simply modules delivered in the same way to everyone. And these have no forum for two-way interaction, for questions, for deeper or more meaningful learning. Or even of having a shared, participatory experience with other learners.

Is the construction of education such a functionalist enterprise? Or are we returning to functionalist forms of education? I’d really like to hear people’s views on this.

And only three weeks to go until I complete my course. Now that I’m addicted I’ll have to fill the hole with something else. But that will have to be after I complete my ITunes course, for which I will receive education but no credit as it’s not a current offering and not ‘live’ and I can’t submit any coursework. Oh well, at least I’m filing in the gaps in my knowledge and hopefully preparing myself for a new pathway in my working life. We will see…

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One thought on “Online learning: new worlds of connection in education?

  1. Debbie says:

    Intriguing, and much food for thought, as always. I am about to enrol in an online course.
    It’s perfect for people like me, who live away from home, work full time etc.
    Surely brick and mortar universities won’t die out – will they?
    sure lots is available online -but —

    the death of bookshops was predicted sometime back, due to amazon and the likes, and certainly many many have closed down – yet still, there are some, and those some thrive.

    online study offers a path for those ( full time workers, often mothers also.. like you were saying… to upgrade study when otherwise they might not be able to. weird electronic relationships notwithstanding.


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