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In my opinion

Not all online learners are lonely (and we can’t give up on those who are)

Rather than dismissing the loneliness of online learning as inevitable, we need to work collectively across academia to continually improve student experiences for everyone.

BY ROBERT FURTADO | MAR 18 2020

When I worked as a professor teaching media studies, I used to approach each class as a kind of focus group, a place for critically testing ideas and techniques I hoped would inspire, inform and ultimately impart students with the knowledge and skills they would need to become not only successful professionals but effective citizens.

In every group, a few archetypes – “personas,” as marketers and designers call them – would emerge, like the one I’ll call Jared.

Jared would be the first to raise his hand when I asked a question. He would offer a nod or encouraging laugh when someone else was presenting or trying to make an important point. He would be quick to turn around and start chatting with his peers the moment the class ended, and his conversations would continue out the door.

Then there were other archetypes, like the one I’ll call Jenna. She said very little in class, unless I specifically called upon her. Not once did she approach me for help outside of normal class hours despite me encouraging everyone to do so. She always seemed to sit a little bit apart from others – at a desk near the wall, if possible. She didn’t necessarily look unhappy, but her time in the classroom certainly didn’t seem to be nurtured by friendships with other students.

While these archetypes may represent extreme ends of the spectrum, versions of them exist in classrooms everywhere. They also exist online, where an increasing number of students are deliberately choosing to learn everything from new languages to advanced technology skills.

I know this because I now work as the founder of an educational-tech startup, where I regularly connect with universities, colleges and coding bootcamps about how to meet the needs of learners of every age and at virtually every stage of their careers. Whether they are still full-time students or working professionals looking to advance their skills, there are choices to be made about in-person classes versus online learning others – and what they’ll have to do to be successful in either environment.

As Johanne Mednick Myles pointed out in her recent opinion article in University Affairs, “The loneliness of the online learner,” it may be time to take a more critical look at the promises of online learning and whether it has, as she put it, “the features fundamental to teaching and learning.” In doing so, however, we need to be mindful of how online learning is defined today, how it’s evolving against the backdrop of a digital economy, and the limitations of in-person learning, too.

What “online learning” can mean today

Although Mednick Myles makes a distinction between blended learning – which combines both online and in-person instruction – and purely online learning, actual learning experiences today are far less binary.

More than 10 years ago, professor Stefan Hrastinski at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology published a study in EDUCAUSE Quarterly that helped elucidate the differences between asynchronous and synchronous online learning. The former, asynchronous learning, provides the convenience of allowing students to learn at their own pace and on their own time, regardless of time zone.

Though it’s true that instructors of asynchronous learning may not always be flexible in making time for one-on-one video sessions or other online “office hours,” this is obviously less an issue with the technology than in how it is delivered by human beings. Many schools, including Canadian universities, are actively addressing this with programs that teach professors and other instructors the nuances of connecting with students through digital channels.

Those skills may become even more valuable in synchronous or live online learning environments, where students and teachers participate in “real time.” Today’s learning management systems and e-learning platforms provide features that ensure these are not simply passive experiences like watching instructional content or a TED Talk on YouTube. ­There are ways to ask questions, offer comments and receive regular feedback via audio, video or chat in different time zones.

Schools at the forefront of online education are even offering mentorship matching programs that give students access to local professionals, while career counselling and coaching are offered virtually, bringing some schools closer than ever to not only replicating the in-class experience but creating actual communities of shared interest.

Students must learn how to navigate a digital world

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Even if synchronous learning doesn’t completely replicate an in-class experience, it may well be the norm for students as they enter the workforce. Depending on their chosen field, they may find themselves watching webinars and participating in videoconferences that will be essential for them to keep up with trends or to update their skills. Having opportunities to experience that at the university level could be good preparation for the future of work.

In a similar way, we can’t take a “build it and they will come” approach to digital tools that aim to facilitate incidental learning, which Mednick Myles defined as the informal learning that takes place outside of the confines of a prescribed curriculum.

Businesses have already had to grapple with this: corporate tools to facilitate incidental learning and camaraderie among distributed teams of employees were largely failures, at least initially. Whereas the intranets were as notoriously underutilized as some discussion forums in online learning platforms are today, much has changed.

The rise of tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have become highly popular in environments where critical decisions must be made by teams that simply cannot meet in person, or where collaboration across departments was once non-existent. Without putting undue burden on teachers, there may be ways to encourage and nudge incidental learning in online environments, much in the way students get prompts at a creative writing class, for example, and offer feedback to technology firms that want to see the same thing.

 The loneliness of the in-class learner

We also need to remember that “going online” no longer means sitting at a desk, and that digital technology has had an impact far beyond the classroom. Walk the halls of any Canadian university and you’ll see some students engaged in incidental learning and casual conversations, but there will likely be as many, or more, that are staring down at their phones.

Just as we shouldn’t attempt to spin online learning as a be-all or end-all, we shouldn’t ignore the realities of loneliness in physical learning environments. In 2016, a study conducted by the American College Health Association found, in its Canadian sample, that 70 percent of students here feel lonely throughout the school year.

This could be in part because, as a story in Maclean’s this past November called “Students are lonelier than ever” pointed out, there are trade-offs to studying in classrooms as well. “For some, starting postsecondary also means leaving behind valuable support systems – childhood friends, families, and at times entire communities,” the article said. We don’t want online learning to exacerbate this problem, but we also don’t want to be complacent about the ability of in-class learning to solve it.

In some situations, meanwhile, online learning isn’t simply better than nothing: it’s the only alternative to nothing. For those living in remote or rural communities, or for those struggling to make education feasible due to lack of transportation or the need to earn a living, we have an obligation to bring the best of in-class learning online.

“Best in class” is not a mere euphemism here. Rather than dismissing the loneliness of online learning as inevitable, we need to work collectively across academia to continually improve student experiences for everyone. That means taking an experimental and context-specific approach when adopting learning technologies, one that’s never complete and that proceeds based on evidence, but that may well be able to deliver high-quality education and training to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

This also means not only providing better training for instructors teaching online and using e-learning platforms, but doing more to monitor, track and report data from students about the quality of their learning experiences, whatever they might look like. We also need to keep in mind the cloud-based, digital-first world in which students are likely to apply what they learn in university, and what kind of student experience will allow them to not only be productive, but to form lasting and meaningful relationships with their peers.

If my classrooms-turned-focus groups have taught me anything, it’s that the best way to build community and reduce feelings of isolation is to show students you’re invested in their success. There’s no reason not to use the best tools at our disposal in the service of that aim; to expand our pedagogical range through technology so we can reach the Jennas and the Jareds of the world. It may, indeed, be lonely out there — but it doesn’t have to be.

Robert Furtado is the CEO of Toronto-based CourseCompare. He is a former marketing agency executive and instructor at the Humber School of Media Studies. He created CourseCompare to make it easier for people to identify and pursue in-demand skills across Canada and beyond.

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  1. David Slater / March 25, 2020 at 13:43

    Important reading at a critical time for taking online learning more seriously. “Online learning” can mean many different things. Now is the time to test new methods and technologies and, as Mr. Furtado suggests, record and share results in a uniform way.