Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reflections of an Online Student, Part 6: Past and Future

Reflecting on what my online tutor had to say, perhaps teaching a class of 200 students online needs different techniques and tools. My past experience as an online facilitator has mostly in developing public policy on IT, starting in the the mid 1990s. Internet based forums were used for this and part of the process was to try to develop a consensus view on difficult issues, such as Internet censorship.

My experience of acting as a educational tutor online is confined to one course "Green ICT Strategies", designed for mentored and collaborative e-learning. Having not been impressed tutors who talked too much in class, I decided to take a low key role by first setting some readings and questions, then leaving it to the students to discuss. Only if there is a problem do I take part in the discussion. During a 12 week course, I would typically need to take part in the discussion only two or three times. Instead I would provide individual mentoring of students.

The greatest challenge I see in the future is to have enough resources to be able to carry out the facilitation role in courses. In small courses of up to 25 students, which I have been tutoring, it is relatively easy to get to know the students and they each other. Peer pressure and individual mentoring can then keep the discussion on track. But if there are 200 students (because the educational institution wants to lower costs), can normal group dynamics work and can there be time for the tutor to provide individual mentoring?

It may be possible to have larger groups by using social networking techniques, as applied to business by services such as LinkedIn. As Franklin and van Harmelen point out:

"LinkedIn acts, at a professional level, as a model of educational use in the way in which it can be used to disseminate questions across the community for users seeking particular information."

From: Web 2.0 for Content for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Tom Franklin and Mark van Harmelen, JICS Repository, 2007

Such systems automate some of the work the tutor normally has to do manually. This then makes it possible to create and maintain a sense of group purpose in a much larger group. Some of those tools are already built into e-portfolio tools such as Mahara.

However, I suspect the larger part of the challenge will be to educate university administrators on why there is still a need for tutors to have the time for interaction with students, even when that interaction is online.

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