Thoughts on Online Learning

This week, I’m finishing up the first online class I’ve taken in a couple years. In the two years since my last online classes, I have become heavily involved in the concept of a professional learning network. For me, learning has become much less focused on specific curriculum and objectives, and more centered on my interests, needs, and goals. I find I’m using blogs, Skype, online discussions, chats, podcasts, Twitter, and Facebook to do a lot of my professional development. I don’t know if that approach is better than the LMS-based model. It’s certainly less structured.

There’s also this concept of a Massive Open Online Course. Basically, you offer a course. Anyone can sign up and take it. Only the people who want (or need) the credit have to pay for it. But what happens when lots of people sign up? What happens when you have, say, 2400 people in the class? George Siemens and Stephen Downes found out with their connectivism course last fall. Here’s a hint: they didn’t use Blackboard.

We’ve moved into the post-information age. Information is not valuable. Knowledge is not valuable. I can Google almost any topic imaginable, and have, within a few seconds, more information on the subject than I could ever hope to read. We don’t pay extra for more information anymore. We might pay extra for less — for information that’s already been filtered — but if you look reasonably hard, nearly everything is available.

Bloom's TaxonomyWhat does this say about education? Grab your copy of Bloom’s. “Knowledge.” Got that one covered. “Understand – Describe & Explain.” We have more of that than we know what to do with. That’s good. It allows us to hit the higher levels on the pyramid. “Apply,” “Analyze,” “Evaluate.” Those are things the learner has to do. The teacher can ask questions, and the right question at the right time makes all the difference. But the answers come from the students. And “Create” is what happens after all of this. Again, it’s for the learner. Use your new skills to go make something new. And share the something with others and let them comment on it and react to it. That has “Web 2.0” written all over it.

So I’m thinking that we don’t really need a learning management system. If there were a course, where the facilitator used a blog to point to some resources and asked some questions, it would organize the “weekly coursework” part. If the participants all had blogs, and posted on the course topics, and commented on each other’s blogs, we could accomplish the same things that we do now within the closed communities of Blackboard or Moodle. Plus, we could use the other tools that are available online — wikis, conferencing technologies, Voicethread, whatever. Each teacher could decide what the best tools are his or her class, or even let the students decide. Different people are drawn to different tools, and there’s nothing wrong with embracing that diversity.

As I’ve taken this online class, on facilitating online classes, I have also found myself thinking more about how the classes are designed than how they’re facilitated. It’s interesting that those two tasks are separated in an online environment. In a traditional classroom, we give the teacher the curriculum and teaching materials and let them design the class. In many online environments, the class — all of the activities, assignments, readings, projects, and assessments — are predefined. It’s an interesting shift, one that takes much of the autonomy away from the teacher. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go.