The Apples & Oranges of Online Learning

I’m sitting in the airport right now, about to board a 16 hour flight to Dallas before making my way to Austin for SXSWedu. I’m going to the conference with eyes wide open, it will take a lot to impress me in terms of buzz words and vendors, but there are some amazing people attending which makes it a worthwhile journey. Online learning and EdTech & consumer technology’s role in it will form a large part of a lot of conversations that happen over the next few days. I’m really glad that events like this occur, but I’m hoping that the kinds of conversation that are happening are far more nuanced that they appear to be at the moment.

As online learning has grown up it has changed and adapted in many ways. This has precipitated a complexification in terms of what online learning is, what it looks like, how it’s conducted and what is possible if we choose to learn online. What that boils down to is that online learning is not a singular thing anymore – it’s diverse and multifaceted – yet the discussion about online often fails to make any acknowledgement of this diversity. What ends up happening is that Apples get compared to Oranges, Oranges compared to Pears, Pears compared to Pineapples – in fact the whole fruit cart is often at play. This means that any real debate about learning online, and the conclusions people make about it and the technologies involved, stunted and ineffective. It allows history to be glanced over, rewritten or completely ignored. Research that is conducted and written in ways that make validity impossible and vendors to make claims that verge on fantasy.

What is needed is for the conversation around online learning to become more nuanced. Ideas, technologies, statements even advertising has to become more qualified and more definite. Basically we need to compare Apples with actual Apples and Oranges with actual Oranges and compare like for like instead of the hyperbolic mess that we have now.

So a couple of ideas of some key areas when differentiation is necessary and helpful:

Real Time vs Asynchronous – the temporal constraints are one of the key ways the learning is differentiated because you simply can’t operate the same way. Real time has specific affordances that Asynchronous doesn’t and vice versa. The interactions that are possible are different, as are the textual vs oral nature of the communications. You just can’t do the same things in Real Time that you can Asynchronously – it would be great if we acknowledged that.

Linear vs Non-linear – The structure that learning takes also influences the design – and one of the biggest influences on design is whether the structure is linear or non-linear. Linear design makes specific assumptions about how students are going to travel through the course. It changes the way information is contextualised, accessed, architecture and presented. Again what works in a linear environment won’t work non-linear one. They don’t work the same way – they can’t. They aren’t compatible with each other and so have to be treated that way.

Automated vs Artificial Intelligence – While they sound similar they are not the same. Automation are actions that occur based on preset and programmed parameters. AI however requires the program to learn, make the decisions and their associated actions. By this definition AI is a long way off – and that’s kind of the point. Regardless of how complex your program – if it’s programmed, it’s automated.

Interaction vs Transaction – What is described as “interactive” these days has virtually rendered the term obsolete. But I personally like it – when its applied correctly. Clicking a button or a link is not “interactive”, Watching a video is not “interactive”. At best these are transactions – navigation or consumption – but very far from any real “inter” (between or mutual). I click this, I get that – that’s a transaction not an interaction.

Social vs Civic – Social has become the new black but I think it oversimplifies the ways in which people interact. Just because someone is in my class doesn’t mean they are my friend nor does it mean I want to socialise with them. Not everything happens in a social space either, and so I think we need to think about defining some of the spaces and interactions we expect from students as Civic. They are about interacting and creating a community, that doesn’t have to translate into friendship. I don’t necessarily want to invite them into my space, to meet them in social spaces – but I’d be quite happy to interact in a civic space. The town square vs the living room.

Personal vs Personalised – Another contentious one – but some differentiation between what is personal and what is personalised needs to be made. Personal is that which is of the person, Personalised is what is suited to the person. Personal is about the individual, personalised is about matching something to that individual. It would be unwise to try and program for the personal, but OK to parasitise something to suit the person.

OK, well the plane is starting to board – so I better finish up. Would love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you’re at SXSWedu – maybe catch up for a coffee or beer and chat!

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