As learning shifts online at pace, the key will be for educators will be to keep it simple, coordinated and normal, write Stephen Dobson and Edward Schofield of Victoria University of Wellington

Things have moved quickly in the global scramble to move everything online. We are reminded of how it used to be different: consider how refugees before the mobile phone might communicate with relatives in their homeland. They might send a letter to the town nearest to their home village. The letter would wait at the post office until a relative collected it from the village. It was definitely slow mail but was treasured greatly even if it might be somewhat out of date when it reached its end point.

It was also about the enjoyment or anxiety in expectation of the letter arriving with good or bad news, about thinking of the process that had taken place as the writer searched for just the right words, maybe even consulting with friends or taking a heavy thesaurus from the shelf. Some might even consider the smell of the ink as it dries or trying to remove the smudge on clothing.

It was a feeling that today would be regarded as somehow quaint, from another time and belonging to an old movie.

Modern educators don’t have time for this as we strive to move everything online. For some, it is regarded only as a technical move. However, it is never simply the ability to put a filmed 50-minute lecture or classroom lesson on to an online student platform, whether it is Google Classroom, Blackboard, Moodle or something else.

We must ensure we shorten the knowledge conveyed to smaller bite-sized pieces, say 10–15 minutes, interspersed with offline activity. Many in education speak of the lost opportunities for intercommunication between those sitting in the classroom or talking in pairs in a lecture. Mourning the loss of the physical experience is understandable, but it can be recovered as we embrace a different pedagogy and understanding of what is required for digital delivery.

This is not a new debate. The seminal piece on it is by education theorist George Siemens in 2005. He proposed that we understand connectivism as the clue and the answer. If knowledge is distributed widely in different networks, some conceptual (carried in our heads) and some external in books or on the internet, how might it best be taught or acquired?

“The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe,” wrote Siemens “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.”

Siemens’ point is simple: teaching and learning is now about being able to connect different sources and networks of knowledge, residing in particular places and repositories – sometimes in the heads of others, sometimes recorded elsewhere. What we need is actionable knowledge where critical thinking is still vital but of the character required to select and evaluate the pipe and the contents of the pipe.

Of course, when knowledge is based upon connecting with networks, the physically or virtually present teacher is now only one possible – although undoubtedly valuable – connection.

What of equity – those who are more disadvantaged than others in joining networks, lacking suitable equipment, skills or a quiet place?

If connectivism is the theory, a slogan to action online learning and teaching will be: keep it simple, coordinated (with others in larger or smaller networks) and normal, so we can still feel security in ‘know this’, ‘know how’, ‘know where’ and ‘know how it feels’.

We have a theory and a slogan for action. What remains is the full transition into this new world of connectivism and clarifying the work of the facilitators. This road can be icy at the best of times, especially before the spring thaw.

Edward Schofield is a Reviews Advisor in the Academic Office at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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