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Gnomes, Online Learning and other Mythical Tales

I have a pathological need to define terms and phrases properly. I am driven by a need for clarity – which might have something to do with my Myers-Briggs personality Type. I feel that without clarity we consistently miss the mark and waste time, money and resources. So when it comes to the current debate around education and technology I don’t feel we are making any ground because we’re debating the wrong things because their is no clarity in what we are actually debating – or more importantly NEED to be debated.

There is one phrase above all else that frustrates me and it is often at the core of educational technology and its online learning.

Online learning is an oxymoron and to explain this I need to deconstruct the phase a little. Lets start by looking at Online.

Online is a mechanism. It’s infrastructure but not an identifiable thing in itself. It is the network of fibre and copper wires, servers, protocols, sites, pages, code and digital communications. It is certainly not a method to do something, rather the direction or way that it travels. It’s an enabling technology for you to do something, but its not the action itself.

And learning? Well learning is the result of an action or process but it’s not the process itself, it is the identifiable cognitive outcome. It’s the personal accomplishment of gaining skill, knowledge, insight and understanding.

So we have a mechanism and an outcome… And …. that’s what we’re debating? That’s where we are putting all this money, time and effort? Into a thing that’s not really a thing, and an outcome that is hard to measure and which is deeply personal and individualised?

Pardon me, but did we forget the actual process in all of this? Where is the education? I’d like to have a debate… But it’s a little one sided when you’ve skipped the meaty bit. South Park always has a knack for finding a gem of insight and this whole thing reminds me of the Underpants Gnomes. Their plan for corporate domination was outlined as

Phase 1: Steal Underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

This seems to be the same as the plan offered by online learning:

Phase 1: Online Technology
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Learning

Simple huh?

We are stuck with incorrect definitions and phrases and therefore investing in the wrong things because we haven’t actually defined the problem properly. Online isn’t the business – it’s just one of the ways it gets done.

And that’s another phrase that needs to be sent to the scrap heap – “everything will be done online”. Well that’s nice but that’s actually missing the point – technology is only suited to certain tasks. Shoehorning tasks and actions not suited is as illogical as it is inevitable (Silicon Valley has made a habit out of it). It’s like a nail vs a screw – they require different actions to complete a task and therefore require different tools. It’s never Hammer vs Screwdriver – you pick the right one for the task that you’re doing, and we need to remember that online is just one of the options in education.

This whole online thing is loopy. Back when we did distance education through print resources it wasn’t called Postal Learning or Printed Learning, was it it? So what’s changed? We’re still doing distance education aren’t we? I accept that we may indeed need to reclaim the phrase distance education or even supplant it with something new. I would much rather we debate that and create a new phrase that makes more sense of the blended, flexible and multi-technological approach we actually use today rather than dump it into “Online Learning”.

Online Learning is a terrible phrase but what’s worse is how it distracts us from the actual process of education. We’re investing in a false solutions – it’s not in the technology, it’s in how we use it. Where stuck talking and investing in mechanisms rather than processes. We need to actually start focussing on people as the most important technology. The connections, interactions and environments we create are what differentiate us as educational institutions…. not being online. We can’t make people learn – but we can create an environment and develop authentic and challenging tasks, responses and interactions that make education engaging which will improve learning outcomes.

So can we ditch Online Learning and cast it out on the mythical scrap heap?


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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