I’ve been involved in reviewing my college’s estates strategy recently. As we’ve been considering options for refurbishment and new buildings, it’s got me wondering once again what a 21st-century FE college might look like.
Will the student of the future be instructed by robots and inhabit virtual-reality rather than physical classrooms? Will the college of the future no longer be a large building with people studying in it, but a technology hub into which online learners plug themselves?
The technology is already with us – it’s dazzling, exciting and developing fast. We now routinely access high-quality audio-visual learning materials of all sorts, and we’ve grown used to communicating through various platforms. But, entrancing though the technology is, it’s worth remembering the deeper limitations of online learning, beyond the immediate practicalities of cost and staff training.
Firstly, however sophisticated the audio-visual technology, online interaction restricts non-verbal communication. It’s hard to replicate the complexity of inter-personal signalling, for example, that takes place in a room of people having a lively and animated debate. Picking up cues from the physical behaviour of others, mimicking them and practising them to develop our own behaviour, is a process that goes on continuously and, most often, subconsciously.
Secondly, online learning allows participants to “edit” their interaction with others – to control when they enter and exit discussions, avoid making immediate responses to questions, and remove themselves from challenge. With others unable to observe them directly, an individual can secretly research their contributions and prepare interventions in advance. So the responses of individuals who are physically present are much more likely to be authentic.
And what about subjects involving practical skill? From cookery to carpentry, engineering to electrical installation, hours of physical practice are essential. Computer simulation can provide some opportunities to practise, but these are of limited value when students need to learn to cope with the unpredictability of human interaction. It’s hard to imagine an effective simulation for drilling a patient’s tooth or helping an elderly person have a bath. So there some firm, possibly insurmountable, limitations to the scope of e-learning. It can play a complementary role in most subjects, but online learning can’t be a substitute for face-to-face learning.
Perhaps advances in technology will in future widen the scope of e-learning and provide a solution to the challenges. But we’re a long way from that, so I wouldn’t advise educational architects to abandon the idea of classrooms, buildings and campuses yet. To the extent that learning is social and often best done in groups, learners will always need physical spaces within which to interact and share experiences.
Andy Forbes is principal and CEO of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London