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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Digital education: Pedagogy online |

Photo: Mike Sharples
Mike Sharples, professor of educational technology at The Open University, UK weighs up a study on the great migration to digital education, from 'flipped' teaching to MOOCs.

A university lecturer being filmed for a learning website.
Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

In 1993, educational technologist Seymour Papert suggested that a teacher from the nineteenth century transported into the mid-1990s would feel at home in the classroom. Twenty years on, this is no longer true.

Teachers in much of the developed world now use smartboards, tablets and student-centred, collaborative and project-based learning. Universities are adopting flipped teaching: students learn online, then solve problems in the classroom. Some can access remote lab equipment and telescopes. Some institutions — such as the University of Waterloo in Canada and Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand — blend online and campus teaching. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) involve people around the world in study and conversation. The continuing change is provoking existential dread among some faculty members, who envision teachers replaced with computer-based tutors and universities moving to online-only courses in the next decade.

Those shifts can also foster an excitement that Robert Ubell's Going Online captures. The book is the view from the control room of the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where Ubell heads the digital-education unit. He starts by observing that traditional university education has failed to engage students in active learning. The more accomplished the lecture, for instance, the more it may give a false impression that all the students have absorbed the material.

Ubell's proposition is that online learning lets students process information in their own time. They can take part in online discussions and ask questions anonymously, without losing face. This demands a new pedagogy — teaching, learning and assessment for active learning communities. Academics must work with web designers and educational technologists to create conditions that let students control the pace and delivery of learning, yet continually share and respond to others' ideas.

Ubell is right that anonymity can help students who are less confident, or not fluent in the language. But an important part of university is learning to challenge and debate. Some MOOC platforms, such as FutureLearn, promote constructive discussion, with thousands of learners bringing global perspectives to hotly debated topics such as climate change.

Going Online shows there are many ways to migrate education to the Internet. All require institutions to commit to opening up instruction, moving from a professional relationship between a teacher and students to a corporate process. It involves decisions about the online learning environment (be it Moodle, Blackboard or Canvas), whether to use a MOOC provider, how to negotiate intellectual-property rights and how to compensate staff. In offering students autonomy and activity, the online university may sacrifice humanity.