A curious place for a college
Has the fun gone out of learning? And have we by and large deserted the principle of education for its own sake?
Two former Scottish FE lecturers certainly believe so - which is why, four years ago, they set up the online learning college The New Curiosity Shop, which is offering free taster courses to potential students during Adult Learners' Week (May 17-23).
The taster courses, snippets which take half-an-hour to explore, are as varied as they are colourful, including Egyptian archaeology, astronomy, AIDS awareness, counselling, journalism, philosophy and herbal remedies ("The Science behind the Old Wives' Tales").
"The aim is to let people discover the fun and the challenge of online learning, to find out how addictive it can be and to gain the confidence to enrol on one - or more - of our online courses," says Noel Chidwick, who set up NCS with colleague Arthur Chapman because they feared that "education for leisure" was disappearing from the prospectuses of colleges and universities across the country.
To date, some 400 students have enrolled on one or more of the 25 courses on offer, ranging from Family History, the Development of the Garden Cemetery and Forensic Psychology to Scottish History in the 13th Century, Jungian Dream Analysis and Italian for the Tourist.
Courses are designed and delivered by tutors with teaching experience and extensive knowledge in their subject and are aimed at beginners in that area. Qualified tutors submit their course ideas to NCS and, once approved, begin building the course online. New courses are continually under development.
Students from all backgrounds and from across the globe include a retired grandmother from Dundee and a professional pilot from California. They can enrol at any time, as courses start monthly. The length of courses vary but are typically several weeks long.
"All the courses are easily accessible and are equivalent to evening classes online," says Dr Chapman. "Students can do them at their own pace, engaging with the course materials, with the tutor and with other students as they wish, though tutor contact and support is essential to the nature of all the courses.
"Learning has become too utilitarian in recent years, with colleges cutting back on just-for-interest courses. Ours are mainly learning for its own sake, though we're exploring accreditation for some. The aim is to have a mix of accredited and non-accredited courses of the same standard, to build up a community of learners and to bring new students to lifelong learning as opposed to lifelong training."
NCS is based at Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian, which will function as its Scottish Qualifications Authority accreditation centre from this autumn. But the move to partial accreditation, Mr Chidwick insists, does not involve a desertion of first principles.
"We are committed to the love of learning, to igniting the joy of learning, education for education's sake, developing critical thinking, bringing people together, widening horizons and generating wonder rather than resignation," he says.
"Learning is about more than qualifications, assessment and improving aspects for a better job, though they have their place.
"We see the internet as a way of challenging and changing people's attitudes to learning, away from 'information overload' and the corporate drive to 'upgrade skills' towards the idea that learning is good in itself. A good learner is someone who can jump off the rails of specialisation and explore the surrounding countryside, to pause, think and ask questions."
Mr Chidwick also believes that many of the courses on offer at The New Curiosity Shop provide good background materials for projects for primary and secondary teachers, notably history courses such as "It's a Long Way From Tipperary: Life in the Trenches (1914-1918)", which gives an insight into the experiences of the ordinary British infantryman during the First World War, and "Scotland in the 13th Century", which looks at places and people in the run up to the Wars of Independence.
And for those with no experience (or a fear) of online learning, NCS provides a short introductory course on How to Learn Online.
During Adult Learning Week, the NCS Open Space facility will include a forum for the exchange of ideas and a library of links to resources for learning.
Ninety-three per cent of NCS learners say they would recommend the virtual college to a friend, and online comments are overwhelmingly positive, including praise for clarity, flexibility and regular and encouraging tutor feedback.
NCS uses Moodle as its platform for online learning and is now looking to develop Web 2, so that it can provide audio and video seminars.
The future for online learning, says Mr Chidwick, is bright, if we can grasp its potential and free it from restrictions. "On-line learning is in its toddlerhood and very few people have a sense of what is really possible. How can we? It's a revolution without precedence.
"But there are many artificial constraints holding it back, purely through lack of imagination or fear. Lecturers are worried that it will put them out of work. We are all in danger of 'information overload'. On the one hand, we strive for wider access to the internet and then worry about what our children will encounter.
"When the motor car was first built, a law was passed that a man carrying a red flag had to walk in front to warn passers-by: online learning still has that red flag man out in front."