Fools Rush In

Driving (or should we say crawling) on any the congested highways around Gauteng or the Western Cape one can’t help but be practically beaten over the head by the number of massive billboards, signs and posters advertising a mushrooming number of new private educators who are keen to enrol learners and students onto their ‘innovative’ technology enabled learning programmes. Lashed with flashy slogans like ‘Success through eLearning’, ‘Online Achievement’ and ‘Accredited Web Based Learning’ smiling, happy students hug each other while brandishing their free, shiny new, China mall tablets and four year old laptops.

While the #FeesMustFall movement has been a proverbial atom bomb for public institutions, private providers of education have been enjoying a delicious bout of schadenfreude while they watched the turmoil unfold across traditional campuses around the country. Student enquiries at private institutions of higher learning were probably higher this year than at any time in the past and it’s all down to learners not wanting to have to dodge rocks, tear gas and marauding protesters just to get to Economics class on time. Likewise, the parents who pay their study fees want value for money, for their kids to graduate in one piece but mostly so they can finally kick them out of the house for good once their certificate has arrived.

The large majority of students, be it rich or poor, likely also just want to just get on with their studies without all the social injustice and free education protesting. It’s been stated over and over that many many students support the call for free tertiary education, it is a noble quest for any country particularly South Africa, but most likely don’t think that burning down the chemistry block is the right way to go about it. And doubly, they don’t what to sacrifice their personal achievement and chance of being employed one day for it either. So it’s not surprising that even some of the very poorest of learners will still strive to enrol and pay for private education in order to avoid the strife. Idealism can be great and all but it sure doesn’t get you a job unless radical politics is you chosen career path and at this rate it probably means some jail time. Uh, no thanks.

However, for those lucky enough to be able to afford or be sponsored for private education programmes, which many perceive to be somehow better because its offered in some digital format or ‘online’, it pays to be discerning.

Online programmes, it must be said, are not all created equal. Too many times have learners and parents been duped into paying over large sums for learning content which is simply pasted on line and branded eLearning and which is no better than paper behind glass. These types of experiences are often accompanied by old or poor quality course content, little or no communication from lecturers (who probably possess limited skills for teaching in a digital environment) and a distinct lack of support or moderation. The sudden rush by new students to private educators is revealing just how shoddy many online enabled programmes have been pedaled in the past and the trend is set to continue unless the consumers of this type of learning delivery take a more pragmatic approach and apply some common sense consumer rights (Isabel Jones, please hear us now)

Many a private college, school and professional education provider are giving technology enabled learning a very bad wrap but what is worse is that the quality of the education itself and skills provided is likely to be suffering at the same time. You know how graduates seem totally unprepared for the work place even though they graduated with distinctions – yeah, that stuff.

If you’ve already enrolled, or are thinking of doing so, in a university or private college that has punted eLearning as a medium of instruction and you want to know if they’re not just flying by night then ask the following set of questions:

How does the various course or subject outcomes align with the use of the technology? If it’s good, then you should be able to detect that digital learning activities and exercises are tied together with skills or knowledge development outcomes. For instance, you may be asked to view a video and then share your views with others in a teacher moderated online discussion or live forum that delves deeper into the subject or principle. Alternatively, you could be asked to create a digital representation of your work and submit it online. If the lecturer is just posting notes online that’s not eLearning – that’s Dropbox.

Are you being tested or assessed online or through a digital medium? Writing tests sent via email and submitting hard copy assignments sent to you on the online platform isn’t eLearning either. There are a multitude of ways to be tested and checked for competency using the web including online quizzes and tests, digital evaluations and surveys, creating your own collaborative video or audio submission or using existing third party platforms to assess developed skills. Look for and ask for evidence of creativity in assessment (it’s your right to demand originality dammit!).

But be fair when it comes to final or summative assessments like exams as these have strict rules around facilitation and which need to be adhered to so can’t always be accommodated in a digital format. The capability to do them does exist but it is resource intensive and can add significantly to the cost of a study programme. However, you should see more of this in years to come, in fact, why don’t you suggest it?

Collaboration, sharing, communication and social networks on fire (er, the good kind). One of the best markers of a great elearning programme is the level and maturity of interaction between learners, lecturers and each other in the online learning space. In repeated studies it has been proven that collaborative study is brilliant for individual performance and knowledge development. With its ability to provide an easy means to establish connections technology does this really well. Looks for signs of regular, vibrant, involved online discussion and commentary that feeds the learning process, is respectful and inclusive of all participants and which, most importantly, adds value to your learning. If you’re assessing a school or college, ask for evidence of this or ask to speak to a lecture who’s good at it. You’ll soon notice who’s only been doing this since yesterday…

The avenues to learning are becoming more and more plentiful for most people, and that’s a great thing. MOOC’s and OERS are evidence of that. But it’s up to you or whoever pays the bill to ensure that you’re getting your money’s worth when it comes to eLearning.

Don’t be easily impressed by the promise of a poor quality tablet or stories of being able to study on the beach. While you’re potentially paying more for this mode of learning you may actually be funding and antiquated and poorly developed technology.

Make sure you ask the hard questions before you enrol so that you can graduate with the confidence that your chosen college or school is really as innovative as they say they are and more than just the advertising on their M1 billboard.

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