Friday, November 13, 2015

Wait ... what? In praise of distance learning

This morning I noticed a headline on one of my favourite blogs, The Big Think:

Can Online Learning Ever Beat The Real Thing?

I read and reread the headline. Was someone really implying that distance learning (or online learning, or extramural study, or whatever you want to call it) was not real? That the only way to gain knowledge was to sit in a classroom and listen to someone lecturing? Well, not exactly. The article noted that there were 'pedagogical advantages' in online learning environments that would be hard to achieve in a classroom situation.

The article got me thinking about how grateful I am for the existence of distance learning options. If it hadn't been for part time study my life would have been very different.

My first foray into part time university study was more than thirty years ago. Not in a position to complete high school or physically go to university, I took a full time job at 16 and managed to enrol for part time university studies via correspondence. Back then prior to the internet the deal was that the university would mail you a package of materials at the start of the term, and you'd buy the textbooks, read the photocopied notes, submit assignments using snail-mail, and attend in person for lectures, tutorials and exams for a couple of weeks each year. It was pretty confronting. I actually failed the first assignment I ever submitted, scoring 47%! I also felt terrified when the time came to attend my first on-campus week. Scared that everyone would be older, smarter and better-read than me. Somehow I persevered and muddled through. I graduated with an undergraduate degree after seven years.

In 1997 I waded into external study again. It was the early days of the 'net and the model hadn't much changed from the eighties: hard copy textbooks and notes, and a week spent at the uni each term, meeting classmates and doing stuff like dissecting brains. (I should probably mention it was a psychology course. I don't dissect brains for fun!) We used email and a primitive message board but couldn't yet harness the full power of the internet as many students didn't have access to it.

Three years later I embarked on distance learning yet again, completing a two-year diploma entirely from afar. This time the internet played a major role; we used it to download course information and upload assignments. I was able to attend my exams in the city where I lived (hundreds of kilometres from the university) and in fact the first and only time I went there in person was to attend my graduation ceremony.

My most recent experience of formal distance education was about four years ago. By then, widespread access to high-speed broadband meant online learning could use a wide variety of tools including interactive message boards and downloadable audio and video lectures. Despite the course being taught entirely online the students made efforts to interact both virtually and in person and I can happily report that I'm still friends with some of the lovely people I met on that course.

Two of the major advantages of studying from afar rather than attending lectures are that you waste much less time getting to and from classes, and if you prefer to learn via the written word rather than by listening to others talk, it's also more efficient.

While feeling fairly determined not to undertake formal university studies again, I've discovered the joy of MOOCs over the past year or so. They're wonderful! Short, free (or nearly free) courses taught entirely online. I've completed about five so far, enhancing my knowledge and understanding of a wide range of interesting topics. They've all been through Coursera though there are other MOOC providers out there too; a colleague recommends edX.

To paraphrase Hugo Weaving's magnificent character in The Dressmaker: Distance learning, you've enriched my life!

No comments: