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Come on in and join the hamsterdance

I HAVE just completed my first assessment for a professional development award in online learning - a 3,000-word report, submitted online, of course, complete with hyperlinks and tastefully coloured background.

I am still debating whether to add further gifs and tifs - would Stuart, my online tutor, appreciate a short burst of hamsterdance? After all, he sent me a picture of himself and his football team which I have adapted so that he now winks and waves in greeting. I have impressed myself tremendously by the new skills I am picking up and during my online research I have become enthused over the huge opportunities online learning presents for both learners and colleges.

My research predicts the death of the educational institution in 10 years' time. That's probably a pretty conservative estimate. I admit the death of the institution was not an unduly worrying proposition when the alarm buzzed on the first morning of work in Y2K.

Dark days, gales, rain, the sweet morning greeting "the lift's aff", and then the discovery that you have forgotten to put a filling in your sandwich, made the idea of a virtual college, indeed a virtual existence, slightly more attractive than RL (that's real life to you and me).

But I have to concede that that's exactly what I'd miss most: the drama, the chaos, the humour and the sheer unpredictability. Of leaving a message for a new part-time lecturer asking him to ring a student who wanted to speak to him - a message which ended with the slightly sinister and enigmatic "and ask for lingerie". Of bringing in a bag of toffees whose final score in one morning reached one crown, one filling (mine) and one chipped tooth. No, we didn't find it all that funny, but since we all have the same dentist he found it amusing and not a little profitable.

Life in the classroom is equally odd. Thursday was a very emotional day indeed. My morning class were reading aloud poems they had written. Sue got halfway through hers and dissolved into tears. Theresa reahed out to sympathise, and found herself weeping. Within moments, half the class were bubbling. Come and join my creative writing class. It's a bundle of fun.

In the afternoon, my media studies class were preparing interactive talks, and Dave's group were researching that old favourite, drug abuse. Dave started giggling, and so did his mate. The more they tried to stop, the more their shoulders heaved. The more they apologised, the more spectacular the relapse. The laughter became contagious. "I promise," Dave said between gasps, "I haven't been sniffing illegal substances."

And that set him off again. Still, if I had to choose a type of mass hysteria, I'd rather have a class shaking with laughter than weeping into hankies. It just looks so much better when the principal walks by.

That's the rub, isn't it? You couldn't have a good bout of mass hysteria if you were stuck in your own virtual world, even with video conferencing. However, I suspect that a virtual college, and the paraphernalia which surrounds it, will have vast appeal for many learners.

At the moment, the sophistication of the work learners can produce using IT seems to be addictive and can simply fire them to become even better. Mark appeared at the workroom door at lunchtime to discuss his Communication 4 talk - a presentation to the class. He and his Dad had bought a computer at Christmas and he had some ideas about jazzing up the presentation.

We talked about presentation packages using video clips and music and if I tried to convey his enthusiasm for having a go at the assessment using IT I'd have to overlay some irony to make it palatable and that would be unfair to his innocent excitement.

"This is going to be an absolutely brilliant talk," he promised me. His eyes were shining. Absolutely. If IT brings on shiny-eyed excitement, let's hope there's an epidemic in FE. And let there be a virtual college. But not yet.

* Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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