Welcome to the virtual world of online learning

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Not so long ago, I wrote about a mouse scuttling around my classroom. I kept my cool, so as not to frighten the older ladies in the class who, I suspected, would attempt to stand on chairs, clutch at their skirts and yell: "Eek!"

There's a new breed of mouse in the classroom now: bigger, scarier and more powerful than ever. Unfortunately, the people who are standing on chairs and yelling "eek!" are sometimes the educators themselves.

Those of a nervous disposition should remember that virtual learning isn't something imposed on learners. It is a response to the demands of a new kind of learner. The passive learner has gone the way of the passive consumer of media. If we are not choosing the best Latin American dancer or deciding who is evicted from the Big Brother house, we are emailing newsrooms, taking part in phone-ins and deciding when, where and how to watch.

We are even airing our own web programmes, publishing our own web newspapers and compiling our own web encyclopaedia. Surely it's natural, then, to want to take charge of our own learning and to expect that learning to be equally stimulating.

Some take a certain amount of pride in admitting that they can't programme their DVD recorder, and leave it to their five-year-old daughter. There's no law says you can't be a Luddite, but it is a law of human nature that children learn fast - and technology doesn't phase them.

Susan Greenfield acknowledges that the child of the 21st century has been exposed to an image-driven technology offering fast information and rapid feedback, arguing that we as educators must incorporate all that is good about that technology.

The Open University is following in the footsteps of several universities in the United States and plans to offer free online study materials. The state of Michigan has gone further and made the completion of a virtual course mandatory before any student can graduate. They see this as a way to help struggling students, and to encourage lifelong learning.

There is a divide between educators who embrace the virtual world and those who see the mouse as a monster set to take over the classroom. Argue as we may, the choice isn't really ours, but will be forced upon us by the demands of learners and of their prospective employers.

Young learners feel at home in the virtual world. Harry came into class today and asked, first, if I had noticed his new hairdo which cost pound;50 (I hadn't), and second, if I had seen the comedy sketches he and his mates had filmed for a video blog (he proceeded to show me).

What does this tell you? He's young, he wastes a lot of money on hairdos that look as if he's just got out of bed - and he's skilled in using some pretty sophisticated technology.

And the mature students? Well it depends on how employable they want to be.

My HNC class have experience of working in a virtual classroom - surely a big plus for their futures. But staying ahead of rapidly changing demands isn't easy. I structured a task around a multimedia PowerPoint presentation, even though that wasn't a requirement of their course.

For a mature student in the class it was a big challenge, and I felt a bit mean stretching her so far, but she did well. The next week, at a job interview, she was asked if she could use presentation technologies.

Am I bothered about mice in the classroom? Bothered? Me?

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College.

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