Thursday, 24 February 2011

elearning and the teacher/student relationship

A little while back I caught a National Geographic show studying human intelligence. In studying various great ape social groups they narrowed down perhaps the most exceptional aspect of human being: our ability to teach each other. Most of the technology we develop is keyed to enhancing this aspect of human civilization.

What began as the transmission of basic skills has evolved into a world wide civilization that has peaked into the heart of matter and seen to the edge of the universe. We suddenly find ourselves holding immense power, and only seek to discover more. The ability to learn and teach are powerful skills indeed.

The fundamental relationship at the heart of this transmission of knowledge: master/apprentice, teacher/student, mentor/mentee, exists in every human (and, it appears, any intelligent animal) society, and is generally acknowledged as one of great importance. Whether you're a Sensei in a dojo, a master craftsman passing on the skills of your trade, or a teacher in a modern education system, the fundamental nature of your job is the same: transmission of knowledge through human contact.

Transmission of knowledge occurs very effectively through these human relationships. When I think about key teachers in my life, they ring true for me because they were people of exceptional emotional honesty, as well as knowledgeable people. They related to me on many levels. I see students cotton on to various teachers in the school because, on many levels, they vibrate at the same frequency. From an administrative point of view, this is why it's vital that schools have many different kinds of teachers who teach in different ways. It's also one of the fundamental problems with trying to systematize the transmission of learning.

We've got the elearning Ontario conference coming up and I'm just coming off a semester where I had to manage no less than 6 elearning courses. Having now taught elearning remotely and in-class, I'm trying to wrestle with the challenges of teaching through the elearning system. In-class, I found good students frustrated because they felt isolated from the teacher (because of the split focus between the online course and the physical presence of the teacher). I found weak students frustrated because of poor computer literacy. They didn't want or seek a stronger relationship with the teacher, but couldn't access the course information or assignments behind a digital veil; anger was often the result.

Over the years I've had some wonderful teachable moments with remote students. Sometimes through text (with exceptional writers and readers in 4U English), but more often through video conference (which doesn't demand a poet's touch for honest, direct contact). A while back, our board set up an Adobe Connect server allowing me to talk to students directly. While still not as immediate as an in-class relationship with a student, the video link does a lot to mitigate the sense of isolation. Unfortunately, the html only elearning system has no intrinsic ability to make this multi-media link possible.

As we begin to move from oil dependence, elearning is going to become a more critical means of delivering curriculum. Being physically present in the same place at the same time will become increasingly expensive. At the moment, elearning does a lot to minimize the personal nature of that teacher/student relationship. Much of this revolves around bandwidth, technology accessibility and lack of experience in both students and teachers. I've been sitting in school waiting 10 seconds for *every* page to load while working through elearning - and those were text pages. In addition to the technical issues, elearning also contains courses not written by the teachers delivering them. Any teacher who teaches other people's material knows how awkward this can be. Elearning is still new, and is having on going problems in its completion rates due to these difficulties.

At home I'm an online game player. I have lists of friends, very few of whom I've met in person, many of whom I feel I know well. We've fought zombies, explored strange wildernesses and worked together through all sorts of adventures. With sufficient bandwidth and technology on site, multimedia information can flow between people in surprisingly complex and meaningful ways. It's still not the same as being in the same place, but it can come astonishingly close. If you ever have a chance to play WoW, or another in-depth online game, you know what I'm talking about.

I'm not in elearning because it will solve all of our problems instantly, that is ridiculous. I'm in it because it is embryonic. Using technology that people couldn't even imagine 2 generations ago, I want to try to find a way to bring the essence of that fantastically ancient learning relationship alive, not just through eyes, vocal chords and ears, but through fibre optics, interactive media and the cybernetics that have become a part of who we are.

It's as close as I can get to sci-fi while teaching. Frustrating? Sure, but I get to "boldly go...", and that is priceless.


This is a post from a few weeks ago on that elearning pilot program. It includes a review of the student survey statistics from the end of the course.