Sunday, May 7, 2017

Online, distance, blended, mobile, campus, hybrid - it's all about learning

We love to put labels on everything but the problem is that the object or concept that we label refuses to obediently stand still and remain true to the label we placed on it. Many concepts have changed significantly but remain trapped under an outdated label, charged with often inaccurate preconceptions and prejudices. This is very true in education, especially when discussing the use of technology, and has resulted in a host of terms to describe education that involves some element of technology to allow participation that is not strictly tied to a physical classroom.

I'm very uncomfortable with all the terms used to describe this field: online, distance, blended, mobile, hybrid, technology-enhanced, web-based etc. As soon as you add one of these epithets you put it in a box, apart from the mainstream term learning, thereby encouraging a polarisation between traditional (standard) and "alternative" forms. Being asked to read a printed book at home and write an essay on it is considered standard whereas doing the same thing on a screen is suddenly alternative and different.

Tony Bates has written an interesting post about a major survey of online and distance learning in Canada that he is involved in, What is online learning? Seeking definition. An essential part of such a survey is being able to define what types of education to include and not surprisingly there is a plethora of terms and definitions with considerable variation in interpretation between universities and colleges. The distinctions that existed 20 years ago have now become blurred and it is questionable whether some terms should be maintained at all.

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

For me all learning today is blended in some way or another: instruction and collaboration, online and on-site, synchronous and asynchronous. Labeling creates an illusion of order but in truth most education today involves some element of technology and it is becoming impossible to maintain clear definitions. Let's move on to using a mix of modern and traditional tools and methods to design courses that offer flexibility and inclusion allowing learners to participate and interact in a variety of ways and not be restricted to only one space, method or tool. It's about learning, using the media, tools and methods that are available today in the most appropriate way to support the learning outcomes. Labels confuse more than they enlighten.

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