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Pros and cons of homeworking culture born of virtual learning

Homework. not an idea recognised much in college. Learners who came to us straight from school would listen as I went through my spiel and then, as if waiting for the bad news, ask: "So what about homework?"

The mix of class content and study time meant that most students could complete their courses in college time, freeing up their own time to enjoy themselves working in call centres, supermarket checkouts or, um, call centres or supermarket checkouts.

Homework may no longer figure in their lives in the old-fashioned sense, but increasingly learners find online learning has blurred the college- home boundary.

It's a good thing. Virtual learning environments have blossomed. Learners can choose to come to college and work in study centres, but there's a logical step from the classroom towards a more flexible approach to homework and tutor contact. If the snow is up past your wellies or you've got flu, you don't need to fall behind

Let's face it, some learners have been working flexibly for years. Linda would regularly email around 11am to say she'd missed the bus and wouldn't be in, but had she missed anything important? Some students managed to stay afloat with brief updates, rather like sending electronic postcards to the folks back home: "Hey! Can't get to class got to workgo to dentistattend court. Can I come and find out what I've missed tomorrow?"

Homeworking is a good thing, then. It's also a bad thing. Those of us who work from home know about the distractions - the pile of ironing that lurks in ambush, the fact that you can't concentrate till the postman's been and that the dog likes a game of tug `o war with the printer cable.

However, getting to the computer is the easy bit. Just when you start work . You can't know this unless there's a Kubla Khan schism in this piece, but just then a little Porlock pop-up, well, popped up on my screen: "Your watched Ebay item is ending soon!" and I have been gone for a moment just to have a look. Easily distracted?

I'm not alone. Those who've monitored learners in virtual learning environments know attention spans are short and distractions many. In controlled conditions, you can crack the whip. "Everything all right?" you'd ask breezily but meaningfully, noticing the screen flick back to Blackboard and to the task in hand.

But how to browbeat learners at home? We could work on our own little pop- up, like the current email you may have seen: a pair of eyes stare at you with the accusation: "If you're reading this, you're not working." Only we'd need to make it much scarier.

Homeworking therefore has its pitfalls, but students like it and, if you're involved in creating courses and online content, you'll know that it's a superbly satisfying, creative task. So no bad news for learners about homework. We just need to warn them about Porlock pop-ups.

Carol Gow, is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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