Most of you will have experience of learning in a classroom, face to face with your teacher and other students. And many of you may also have experience of learning online, either formally on a distance learning course or what we call a ‘blended course’ (partly online, partly face-to-face), informally by consulting websites and online resources, reading blogs, discussing topics in online chat rooms or by following open online courses such as MOOCs.
This part of the guide will help you understand some of the specificities of studying online to help you get the best out of the experience.
In the classroom, communication is immediate. It can be one way, when the teacher gives a lecture, or more interactive if there is discussion or group work involved. One of the main differences in studying online is that you don’t always have immediate reactions from the teachers or your classmates, as a lot of the communication is what we call ‘asynchronous’. You might feel alone, isolated and frustrated, especially if you have doubts or questions about a certain point. But learning online isn’t necessarily a lonely activity, as Sandra will tell you:
“Hi, I’m Sandra. I’m in my final year of engineering studies at the University of Bluetown. Friends of mine who work in industry have told me that they have to manage huge projects, and what they learnt at university doesn’t really teach them many of the skills they need. So they encouraged me to brush up my teamworking and communication skills by following additional courses. My first reactions were “How on earth will I ever find time to do that on top of my studies and how can I afford it?” but then my sister told me about MOOCs.
And now I’ve just completed my first MOOC, on Project Management. It was easy to see how teamwork fitted in there, as one of the tasks was to design projects in groups of 5, even though there were 10,000 people following the course. I liked the videos, which I could watch several times and take notes, though I sometimes found the system of quizzes after every unit a bit repetitive. What I liked most was posting questions on the forum and then getting answers from other students from all over the world.
The group work was complicated to set up, for example my first suggestion for a project only had one person interested in it and I almost abandoned the MOOC because of that, but then I saw another suggestion very close to mine and asked to join that group. We worked online on the platform, had Skype meetings to be able to talk to each other live (a bit of a challenge given the different time zones, but now I have a much better knowledge of geography!) and submitted our project for peer review. We also had to review other students’ projects and to be careful how to express our criticism so as not to offend the others. After all, we knew we would be on the receiving end of feedback too.
Now the MOOC is over, I’m Facebook friends with two of the other members of my group and am updating my CV. I’ve heard about something called an ePortfolio where I can show recruiters my work and the competencies it demonstrates but I don’t really know what it is. That’s my next task, to find out!”
Contribution from Lisa-Marie Blascke, Program Director, Master of Distance Education and E-Learning (MDE), Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.
Knowles (1975) defines self-directed learning as: “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p. 18).
In layman’s terms, this basically means that you decide how you will organize and conduct your learning activities. The level of self-directedness that you engage in when you learn online can be as simple as defining a schedule for carrying out learning tasks – responding to discussion posts, reading course material, and working on group activities – to deciding what will be learned and assessing your individual success in learning (for example, identifying your learning goals and the resources you will use to learn and then deciding whether you have achieved what you first set out to learn).
To become a self-directed learner, you will need to take control of your learning, which can be somewhat daunting, especially if you are accustomed to taking direction from your teacher in deciding when and how to learn. At the same time, becoming self-directed in your learning gives you a certain freedom and autonomy in making decisions about learning. You are in charge of the learning experience. In the online classroom, you make the decisions on how to manage your learning, and your instructor is there to guide you through the process as needed.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. USA: Globe Fearon.
In a study of over 100,000 online learners, Sandra Milligan, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, finds that learning is a skill in itself that involves being prepared to take a risk, engaging with peers and having an independent streak.