Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 2 – “The possibility of the online version is overstated. The best online courses are born digital.”

Following on from some of the questions raised in my last post with respect to kids, do we teach them to draw and paint vicariously? No it has to be hands on. Can we teach management students strategies of how to deal with difficult staff members? Yes we can teach them rules of thumb and offer tabulated best practice but we cannot package or can the visceral aspects of the work. This is so much software is beta tested and how many technologies, especially innovative ones can only be worked out and bug fixed through diffusion and implementation. Learning to work online teaches us to work online, to communicate online, teaching working offline teaches working offline. The teaching of digital things, lends itself well to online, as does the use of computers to capture and analyse video and produce simulations, all these are in the genes of computation. Added to this is the exciting realm of massively connected gaming, the kind championed by people like Jane McGonicle. Other useful teaching games are Sid Meier’s Civilization for showing rise and fall, and political science, Spore for basic biological and social evolution, and SIMCITY 2000 for casting a map of city systems. All good necessary games.

The received wisdom on digital arts courses is that nobody teaches Maya or other rendering software until they can draw and sketch, hatch and blend, colour and paint using traditional materials such as pencils and charcoal. This would certainly suggest a primacy of ‘real’ if not over, then before, ‘virtual’. In other words, an understanding of the propensities of the virtual, through, or grounded within, the mechanizations of the actual or real. Our mental meanderings and imagination and possibility is tethered by the actual and real, the apparent nature of the Newtonian world of gravity and cause and effect. Cartoons and fantastic works of literature such as Alice in Wonderland serve as departure points for excursions into mind’s eye non-Newtonian universes, where the laws of physics which we all take for granted and hold to be self-evident start to be played with, are game changed. The reality though, is that every encounter is interactive, with an ‘open’ system, everything is experienced anew but within schema and frames of thinking rather like McLuhan’s ‘forward through the rear view mirror’ concept. McLuhan viewed that humans are still evolving relative to their use of tools, and their exploitation of the world of other people, ideas, and environmental control (Benedetti and DeHart, 1996). To serve as extensions of human thinking and senses anything channeled by, through or created by a computer is limited by whatever has been programmed, and by the human imaginations hanging off the end of terminals.

I suppose that ‘born digital’ is the machine correlate to ‘digital native‘, and means purposely and originally built to be online, to exist online, to be assembled by staff of a company or institution online, then I would still have to inquire as the genealogy of the baby? Any online course is a conflation of many elements, both technical and pedagogical components obviously, as well as aesthetic and economic considerations and others.

I remember when I was at an education fair in Kuala Lumpur, I approached the desk of a Singapore based online MBA provider with a view to them supplying particular modules that could suit a staff development project that was wanting to do. There was much talk of ‘chop and cut’ (which I took to be Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V like behavior), where the offer was to buy portions or elements of course modules. This really made me think about what the basic or fundamental unit of knowledge is, what does it look like? How can it be shown, illustrated? Also, what the basic or fundamental unit of learning could be? I mean dissemination assumes that `knowledge’ may be parceled up into carefully weighed chunks and `delivered’, largely by carefully pre-written materials in a serial or nonlinear form, within an externally designed and assessed curriculum context. It sort of reminds me of when I heard the word, I believe that was coined by Oracle – ‘media object’ and other oxymoron’s like ‘digital assets’. The student receives and internalises this content, for the purposes of application, incorporation or regurgitation later on. Otherwise how can we tell if any learning takes place? If I SMS students random questions or tit-bits, knowledge bites of course material, can I meaningfully pass on or receive in a 140 letter tweet?

No matter how the learning process comes into being, is designed and managed, the nature of assessment casts its shadow backwards, determining what is perceived to be important, what is the essence of the course for the student, the salient points, focusing staff attention towards given ends, and, for the outside world, determining the quality of the experience as measured through its outcomes.

I mean how deep do we go with respect to content creation, assemblage and curation? Do we cultivate an entire new syllabus where the abilities of students are measured on their abilities to creatively plagiarise? Or is an online course in Tudor period paintings based upon similar offline courses, themselves assemblages of researched material bootstrapped together with massive discontinuities and glaring lacunae? Does the curtains part on week one addressing the political and religious ramifications, before act two, week two when we are asked to consider materials that were available at this time etc. etc. Of course you could turn all this linear sequencing on its head and offer all weeks together, so that the students can access material that would be available in the linear sense in week and so on and so forth, but the proof surely lies in the pudding, the course objectives and learning outcomes being met, if so great? Of course under the rubric of student managed learning the objective could be negotiated between institution and student.

Finally, the question of embodiment also rears itself again here. There is surely the recognition that particular capabilities have always been acquired, and perhaps have to be, largely through doing. Computer programming as subject matter for a pure-play online course lends itself well to online delivery, but does geology or chemistry?

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