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Posted by on Feb 21, 2012

Online (learning) can be (and is) the privileged mode: Thoughts on the manifesto for teaching online

As a proud graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Elearning program, I have been enriched and invested myself in the process of learning with this dynamic community. I consider it time and resources well invested as I have had the doors blown out on my perceptions of what it means to learn online (especially as that dynamic being a poorer surrogate of the face to face experience-absolute nonsense). Well, being the clever people that they are, a recent activity has me spinning roles a bit from learner to instructor. 

Before I go too far with these introductions, I should point to the project and then do a bit of explanation. The recent release is called “the manifesto for teaching online” and rather than act as a best practices type of document it rather acts as a challenging set of statements drawn from ethnographic accounts of former and current MSc in Elearning students (including yours truly from 2009). It is part of a larger University of Edinburgh project examining online writing and assessment called “Student writing: innovative online strategies for assessment & feedback.”

Download this file

This manifesto strikes all the right chords for me (I suppose that makes sense) as a veteran and self-appointed steward of online learning (I have always resisted distance learning). When it is done properly, it defies expectation and rewards with a depth I do not believe equal to face to face classroom (I am tempted to say superior there, but I will say it can be an advantaged position). As elearners (either students or teachers), we are constantly fighting against the grain of public perception, that online learning is a lesser form of learning, that physical institutions can simply extend to account for elearning, that space matters only in the physical sense. I have always resisted these notions as well as just nonsense. Being the defiant lad that I am, I never felt compelled to prove that elearning was equal to or superior to face to face learning; I challenged anyone to prove the opposite. The MSc in Elearning team has taken up the baton, done the legwork with their qualitative analysis (I pity them for making their way through my ramblings), drawn the conclusions, and are prepared to have the debate. I love it. 

So how does the role of instruction and institutional presence change online? The pat answer is that the instructor becomes more of a facilitator in a constructivist online course, facilitating connections, activites, scaffolded learning, etc. But that isn’t the case. I am speaking for myself here rather than the MSc team, but that view of online teaching is a cop out. Facilitation is important, certainly, but the role of an elearning instructor is much more than that. It is an expansive (expanding the group towards what is possible, rather than what is accepted practice) presence, one with a thousand ripples and subtle permutations throughout the learning consciousness. Instruction in these environments are like ideas planted in our waking hours and then germinated in our dreams. They act on our psyches like an accelerant on a campfire. They invigorate the group dynamic, infuse rigor in our outputs, yield and respond, fluidly. It is a complicated, nuanced business and one that certainly doesn’t need a lazy comparison to a physical classroom setting. 

So, some of my notes mixed in with the points from the manifesto itself:

  • Distance can be a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode. I could not agree more.  
  • The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. The best online courses are born digital. 
  • ‘Best practice’ is a totalizing term blind to context- there are many ways to get it right. 
  • Every course design is philosophy and belief in action. 
  • Redefining connection means we can make eye contact online.
  • Text is being toppled as the only mode that matters in online learning. 
  • Place is differently, not less, important online. 

That last one is my favorite. A geography of learning has yet to emerge (fully), but I suspect it will quite soon. In all my years of online learning, I have never felt space was negated in any way. It just seems that way from the outside. Great work from the MSc team. I would be amiss if I didn’t include the video as it is explains all of this better than the onslaught of text I just presented. 

A manifesto for teaching online from Jen Ross on Vimeo.

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