Can a computer help you swim?

People often ask me whether e-learning is “just as good” as face to face. Now, as a rule, I’m not inclined to be evasive, but my stock answer is “it depends”. However, I go on to add that e-learning methods can be effectively deployed to teach a much wider range of knowledge and skills than most people give it credit for.


There are certain practical skills which e-learning is not (yet) good for. I wouldn’t want to be a passenger in a car driven by someone who had learned to drive purely at a computer. Someone who jumps in a river after a series of virtual swimming lessons may regret not having signed up for a course at her local pool. Computer simulations are getting better and better and can certainly support practical classes, but cannot entirely substitute for them.


Sceptics tend to identify the lack of a social dimension as a key weakness of e-learning, compared with attending a face to face class. It’s certainly true that, for most people, learning is more successful if it’s a social activity: we learn from our fellow students as well as from teachers and resources. Social learning can encourage deep learning as well as develop critical thinking and the ability to formulate arguments coherently. However, it’s a mistake to assume that e-learning is a solitary activity. There are many ways in which social interaction can be facilitated even among students attending a purely on-line course.


I recently participated in a short-lived MOOC run by Coursera (ironically it folded because of technical difficulties, but that’s another story). One of the best things about the course during the few weeks that it ran was the terrific sense of community among the learners, of whom there were thousands. It was a MOOC on on-line education, aimed at teachers and lecturers. I met and had stimulating discussions with teachers from all over the world – all via a simple on-line discussion board.


Sometimes a course has to be entirely on-line, whether to reach the target student audience or for reasons of resource. The designer of the fully on-line course has to give careful thought to creating the most suitable social framework for the intended students. For many students, the social dimension afforded by social media will be just as satisfactory as a live experience, and, indeed, often more so.


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