Digital Education: Fast and Furious?
A few years ago I made a MOOC - a Massive Open-Access Online Course – for Leiden University on the Coursera platform. Its called The Rooseveltian Century, re-interpreting US history in the 20th century through the lives of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
It went live in January 2016 – the 75th anniversary of FDR’s ‘Four Freedom’s speech - and its still available for those interested in following another online course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/roosevelt.
At the time MOOCs were looking like they might be the next phase in education, and Leiden was investing heavily in them. Online courses would enable anyone anywhere to follow courses of their choice, and what could be more democratic than that? Ours was even innovative for Leiden at the time in that we did on-location filming (in Zeeland (!), because that’s where the Roosevelts originally came from). Now, over four long years later, they look like what they are – video – in a digital era that has moved on fast in terms of real-time interaction.
The debate about digital vs traditional education is an ongoing one that is often distorted by the ‘tech marketing’ that wants to sell products by dressing them up as the next best thing since Diet Coke.
Traditional means being tied to a classroom-orientated schedule that demands physical presence and whiteboard/powerpoint-focused concentration. Digital, in contrast, is fast, cool, and flexible. MOOCs are all about building your own education package by following courses whenever you want, there is no ‘participation grade’ and there is no end point other than what you yourself choose.
What is more, current and future generations of students have grown up in a world surrounded by the online, digitally-connected world. For my generation, the smartphone is still a new invention. For our students, its simply normal.
But this ‘online utopia’ only goes so far. How do you run adequate online assessments? MOOCs never really solved that one. Yes, you can do what you want, but does the online learning experience simply reproduce the ‘close but distant’ experience of social media in general? Being present in a classroom is for a reason – you are there for a purpose. It can be difficult to maintain concentration elsewhere if that requirement is lost. Then there is the issue of possible isolation, because the screen simply doesn’t replace our appreciation for human contact.
Digital learning sites – the good ones, at least – do admit that, next to the benefits of flexibility, cost-cutting, multiple communication channels, and opportunities for collaboration, there are also limitations to the kind of social learning that we can create in a university as a whole. Studying is not only about ticking off the course list, its also about interacting with your peers, adjusting social behaviour, appreciating differences, in the same physical environment. We still ‘go’ to university in a much broader sense than simply ‘going’ to a url, and that will always stay so.
The challenge, as we look ahead, is to see what we can take from Leiden’s sudden burst into the online education world as we look to reconvene as a physical university later this year. How can we get the best out of both worlds, traditional and digital? What do Kaltura and Microsoft Teams tell us about possibilities with ‘Flipping the Classroom’? How can we maintain the physical community of a study programme like International Studies, but get the most out of the digital awareness and learning capabilities of our students? This is something to take very seriously as we move forward.
One of my first wishes as the new programme chair was to find out what kinds of digital/online education was already taking place within International Studies. This wish has now been given an extra push. How do our staff experience this shift? How do our students react to the world of online learning? I want to hear from both sides, to know how we can build on this experience in the best possible ways – for improving our teaching potential, and for improving the studying environment for our students. In this sense, academic year 2019-2020 could well be a pivotal moment. I am open to all proposals!