Blended and online learning is now a mainstream concept, after decades treated as a niche concern. There are so many voices in this space now, journalists, practitioners, researchers, policy makers. I can’t even try to summarise the many threads of discussion. So this post is just a collection of thoughts in the hope that saying it out loud will help me or maybe even someone else.

Digital Learning in bananagram letters

Digital poverty isn’t a thing

To learn online, people need access to a device, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to sit. People who live in crowded homes, or without decent broadband or without a good computer will have problems learning online. The Labour Party was laughed at in 2019 for advocating subsidised broadband for all. Now there’s a panic about “digital poverty”. Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian (22 Jan 2021) about the framing of digital poverty alongside period poverty, food poverty, child poverty. “It must instead be broken down into discrete categories, all the better to tuck into Whitehall documents or charity campaign strategies. In that fake neatness lies both great political hypocrisy and huge social danger”. See “The problem is poverty, however we label it“. Making the education sector own the barriers created by poverty, as with free school meals, creates a smokescreen for the underlying issue.  Some people don’t have enough money to meet the cost of living. The cost of living now includes being digitally connected and feeding your kids during the day. Wages or benefits  need to increase to cover that gap, or the government needs to legislate to cap some of the costs of living. I don’t know the answer but I am increasingly uneasy with all this talk of digital poverty. At Chakrabortty says, it is a “fake neatness”.

Traditional exams ain’t all that

I don’t understand the worries about teacher-assessed grades, or the weird nostalgia for rows of desks of scribbling students. Big bang assessment is not often the best way to assess a students knowledge and skills. Continuous assessment, mini feedback loops, assessment for learning not just of learning: these patterns are surely better. And writing on paper without the option to copy and paste text or add reference links: how is that authentic to any modern workplace? How far are our assessment designs based mainly on making it hard to cheat, at the expense of genuine evaluation of progress? In the Conversation in August 2020, Winstone and Baud persuasively describe the need to rethink assessment anyway: we should “cut down on exams for good“. 

We should have less big bang summative exams sat in big rooms with invigilators, there are plenty of alternatives. Online assessment systems can at least allow for typing, which is more authentic, and why not also speaking, and drawing? And in the scenarios where an unseen timed assessment is the only option and it has to be online: sometimes proctoring might be useful. It shouldn’t be the default. But it might have a place, sometimes.

The important thing is to design good, aligned, authentic assessments that genuinely assess the students knowledge and skills.

We need pragmatism about privacy

Now that everyone has woken up to the maxim that data is the new oil, and “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”, what does that mean for user data flowing through our learning tools?

Institutions definitely need to be clear with students about what is collected and what it is used for. The more upfront we can be about that, the better. Where the data is used for tracking engagement in learning I think that can be make explicit in the information about the module, and the design of the learning activities. Learning analytics doesn’t need to be sinister, it just needs to be above board.

Educational Technology is big business now

The scale of online learning activity means that platform providers need to be a decent size to have scalable reliable supported hosting. They need to be big players with 24/7 support and big technical teams to keep up with changes to web browsers and rolling app upgrades for smartphones.

To some suppliers, education is only one small sector and we don’t carry much weight with them but in return we get enterprise scale solutions. The more digital approaches are used in corporate training, customer service, communication and collaboration etc, the wider the market is.

The conversation should be having with them is about their business models: might institutions need different sorts of contractual relationships and pricing structures to avoid paying in data?

We need more precise shared language about digital learning design

We need some shared vocabulary around synchronous and asynchronous, solo and social, consumption, creation, collaboration.

Learners need to understand better what is expected of them and when. Educators need to describe that to them, and to coordinate with their colleagues to design and deliver these learning experiences.

I like to imagine that we could agree on terms to describe a sequence or combination of activities, together and alone, online and offline. It feels like that language is developing rapidly around online collaboration in the workplace: in online workshops using breakout rooms and tools like padlet, we’re all getting better at purposeful use. I expect to see those micro design patterns get given short names. As my colleague Robert O’Toole would say: more explicit pattern-naming benefits everyone.

In an optimistic mood I might even suggest that when we are better able to describe the purpose of each activity and each content input, we might be better able to share resources too. More interactive use of large on-campus teaching sessions for active and social learning comes out of a decoupling of content, delivery, interaction and feedback. The same approach increases the options for inclusive teaching, and also the possibility of using open educational resources. So many options arise from the same attention to design. By disaggregating and then reimagining teaching, a whole plethora of practices become possible.

The next wave is beginning

I said in a previous post that I am trying hard to see this acceleration of digital learning as a genuinely new wave. I really do think that, though perhaps our ways of talking about teaching now needs to distinguish more between what was, what is, and what should be. It’s only when we separate that out that we can talk sensibly about what tools and support are needed to allow space for growth. There are lessons to learn from the phase of emergency remote teaching but it is only when we have real choices again that we will see how far we have expanded the possibilities.