Southern New Hampshire’s president, Paul J. LeBlanc, writes in his thinking paper “The Next Big Thing”:
“The vision is that students could sign up for self-paced online programs with no conventional instructors. They could work at their own speeds through engaging online content that offers built-in assessments, allowing them to determine when they are ready to move on. They could get help through networks of peers who are working on the same courses; online discussions could be monitored by subject experts. When they’re ready, students could complete a proctored assessment, perhaps at a local high school, or perhaps online. The university’s staff could then grade the assessment and assign credit.”
The team at the Network University had pretty much the same delivery model in mind, back when I worked there in the 1990’s. There is a lot of appeal to this model, from the institutions side as well as from the learners perspective. It cuts out a lot of costs and you reap the benefits without having to invest too much in the process. And as a slow or fast learner, or in between jobs or juggling three kids, you no longer have to adapt to the rest but can determine your own pace. But when I think of the online initiatives which have worked and been extremely successful, and what their success factors were, I think we might be missing the point if we choose for this delivery model.
People attract people. Like attracts like. I believe the greatest magnet online social networks have to offer is that they are social. (I know, open door, but sometimes they need further opening). And yes this model gets that, but only partially I expect. It includes a network of peers taking the same class and a subject expert monitoring. One student could take 18 months to complete it and the other 3 weeks. The problem here is that you have a group of students with possibly extremely diverse levels of understanding of the subject matter, asking each other questions. Besides the knowledge levels being so disparate, the “sense of group” will also vary greatly between those racing through the course and those taking their time. A sense of group and trust in the group becomes important in the process of asking questions and sharing knowledge. So yes, the social network aspect is there, but it might be too diverse to actually succeed in creating a learning community.
There are plenty of user cases and lessons learned, experiences we can build on with networked learning communities in companies (CoPs, CoLs, etc). These could be examined. But the target group, it’s age, dedication, goals, discipline etc must also be included when comparing it to a university setting.
I am more a proponent for mixed learning. There is nothing which can replace the adrenaline rush and drive and enthusiasm gained from having a lively content related discussion with a professor or knowledge expert face to face. Voice intonations, excitement, irritation and body language all being included in the experience. And face to face skills should be taught at the university as well. Deliver an argument, debate, keep your calm, focus and respond ad rem, etc. Keep this and loose the monologues. Or rather, if you are broadcasting, then broadcast. Let’s use time when students are in class to interact, engage, enliven, discuss. And when they are expected to sit back, take notes and receive information, let them do that via appropriate media such as online video lectures given by the professors. With a networked facebook-ish platform open where they can also engage with their fellow students who this week also watched the same lecture and have the answer to the question.
I hope to learn from professors why that won’t work, to better develop the model.