After a recent dinnertime debate was resolved using the internet, a friend of mine said wistfully “sometimes I just speculate indefinitely for old times’ sake”. I expect that this is a sentiment that we all recognise – the way we approach what we don’t know and the way we develop our knowledge is changing.
So – tell me about your experiences of online learning?
This is a question I have not only been asking new YouthNet volunteers- but also in meetings within the organisation. Initially, as perhaps you responded, the answer is often “erm, I haven’t had much”. But who hasn’t looked up an answer to a question on Google, or Wikipedia – or found a video on Youtube to show you how to reset your phone, cast on in knitting, or even get the info needed to help your child with their homework? We use the web to research and learn without even thinking about it now – and for the younger generation, it’s expected and deeply embedded in much of the curriculum.
Using the web to facilitate learning and training within YouthNet has been something I’ve been exploring over the last year or so. We’ve been developing online courses for our own volunteers and for participants in a country wide Money Skills programme. Yesterday I watched Daphne Koller’s TED talk – ‘What we’re learning from online education’. The pioneering online learning programme Coursera that she and her colleagues are creating is on a scale that makes my mind boggle – 640 thousand students, 1.5 million enrolments and over 6 million quizzes at the time of her talk. However, while listening to her speak, I was struck by how much of the learning and insight gained by her and her colleagues during this process is similar to our own learning, or relevant to the work we are doing going forwards. I thought I would explore a few of the points I identified here.
An online experience of learning can be an improvement
There can still be a tendency to think of online interaction, whether it be in learning or in support, as somehow lacking compared to the face to face equivalent. I believe strongly that online support plays a distinct and highly beneficial role in someones journey towards resolution of the issues they are facing. I’ve explored many aspects of this, including the types of support we offer online, peer support online and how using the written word can help us provide better support. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that online learning can offer huge benefits.
Practically, volunteers who are signing up for a ‘virtual’ opportunity (offering support online from their own computer), often do so because there is a reason why they can’t physically turn up to volunteer – or to train. These reasons could be medical, because of childcare considerations or just because the structure of their lives and work make it impossible. Offering training online for a virtual opportunity makes a lot of sense. It enables us to offer the training to more people, at a time convenient to them.
But, as with the support and guidance we offer, it’s not just practical considerations that make people turn online. Online training can also offer an improved and more personal learning experience. Koller talks about the way that online courses enable you to break away from the ‘one hour lecture’ structure so commonly used in universities and create shorter units of learning – that better reflect how much information people can process at once – and that individuals can move through at their own pace. This brings me on nicely to my next point.
Learning is not a ‘one size fits all’ experience – and online learning can cater better for this.
We have been using Moodle to develop our online learning at YouthNet. Moodle is open source course management software with features chosen to support a particular philosophy of learning. You can read more about this here, as Martin Dougiamas puts it better than I ever could. The basic idea is that students learn best in a truly collaborative environment where they can be both teachers and learners, where they can both create things for others to learn from and also develop by observing their peers, and reacting to their work. It also emphasises the importance of flexibility and adaptability of a learning environment, to properly respond to the needs of the students. The word Moodle itself, while standing for ‘Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment’ also means ‘the process of meandering through something, doing things as it occurs’ and ‘an enjoyable tinkering that may lead to insight and creativity’.
Where I’m getting to with all this is, of course, how online learning enables us to create an environment that can be personalised effectively for individual learning styles and paces. Each of our courses is divided into topic sections, and within these are different activities and reading. Students can work through the course at a pace that suits them – and additional material is always available to those who are interested in taking things further. We’ve been developing an ‘Essential skills for giving online peer support’ course, which can be offered flexibly to anyone interested in volunteering with us, depending on their needs. We can also then offer more specific courses to those taking on individual volunteer roles. All the training in one place online enables volunteers to return to specific material and activities whenever they need to.
Personalisation also ensures mastery – an online course never gets tired of showing you the same material, or asking you the same questions until you are sure you are on top of it. Koller speaks of face to face lectures where, when she asks a question, much of the class are still catching up on notes, still more are zoned out on their phones, and one or two at the front blurt out the answer before most have even realised a question has been asked. Online courses ensure everyone, at their own pace, reaches that point, and has a go answering that question.
The importance of a community of learners
Given the exploration of the philosophy of Moodle above, it seems right to move onto this point next. At YouthNet, we know the importance of community and engagement in order to provide and improve positive support to the young people who use our services. Extending this community engagement into online learning is an obvious next step. Koller talks about how communities worldwide have built up around the shared interests and learning experiences of Coursera.
While our learning is not yet at that scale, the community element of our online learning enables our young volunteers to ask questions of each other or their coaches whenever they think of them (they are often working and volunteering outside office hours) and to share their answers and thoughts. In addition, online learning enables us to run regular live chat sessions with a group of volunteers and a coach, on a range of training topics – thus enabling a group who could not have met physically to learn from each other and experts and share experiences. We’re lucky at YouthNet because our extensive experience of running live support chats and nurturing communities has given us a good grounding for moving this work into the field of learning.
Peer grading – the problem of feedback
Koller speaks about the problem of grading – whilst technology increasingly enables us to automate the marking of multiple choice, of maths problems, even of short answers, it’s not able to provide the more critical analysis needed for humanities subjects. This too was a problem that we faced – our initial modules, especially given our small capacity, involved too much human input to be scalable. Koller solved this problem using ‘peer grading’ – something which she shows statistically provides generally very similar results to those given by teachers.
This was a similar solution to the one that we reached. Giving support online is not an exact science, certainly not something that can be taught and tested using entirely simple quizzes and multiple choice. Our current solution is based on a similar idea of peer and personal grading. Our volunteers see the activity or question, and then when they have submitted their response, they can see the teachers notes on the answer, as well as the responses of other course participants – thus enabling them to assess their own answer and learn from others. This system works well for the basic ‘Essential skills’ course, freeing up our time to support individuals who completing more specific and advanced volunteering activities.
The need for recognition
Koller distinguishes their courses from online learning in the past by the structure, the deadlines and, most importantly, the recognition at the end – citing the stories of learners who have taken their course certificates to employees to support job applications or to educational institutions to gain entry to courses or build course credits. We too are very aware of the importance of recognition. Many of our peer advisors, for example, get involved because they want to gain experience for their CV. As a way of helping to recognise the skills they gain, we developed an accredited course in ‘Giving Online Relationships Advice’ with the OCNLR. This is a big incentive for volunteers getting and staying involved. As we develop our online learning, we want to develop an accredited course in ‘Essential skills for giving support online’, to accredit the work our volunteers are doing here too.
Learning about learning
Finally, and perhaps the focus for Koller, is the fact that online learning helps us to understand how people learn, and learn from that to improve our training. This is a really exciting element for us too. With the answers and thoughts from many volunteers, all being gathered together in one place, we can start to see patterns of wrong answers or problem areas, and adjust our training and guidelines accordingly. Hopefully, if we can continue to work on online learning, we can start to build up the data around how our volunteers approach and learn and so use the flexibility of online that Dougiamas emphasises to adjust and change.
And as we better understand how our young volunteers learn, we can, funding permitting, start to develop scalable learning for others too, for our young users who might benefit from online courses helping them to develop life skills, to manage their mental health, or to improve their self esteem. The possibilities are endless and exciting and we’re just getting started…