Friday, 15 January 2010

Is there snow alternative to face-to-face teaching?

As I sit listening to the welcome sound of rain falling outside and watch the snow and ice melt away, I’m conscious that my sense of relief will be shared by people across the UK. It’s been a trying and sometimes even traumatic period as people have struggled to get into work, get to the shops and even to get out of their front doors. And, thanks to a Christmas holiday in the southern hemisphere, I’ve only experienced a week of it.

Here the news reports have been full of vox pops of students, parents and teachers anxious about school closures and exam cancellations. News filtered through to me of one of our own University students who fell on ice on Wednesday and fractured her wrist in four places as she was trying to get into a class. I’ve had my own share of difficulties – falling over on ice and damaging my laptop, and have had a few scary moments trying to commute to work. When I did get there, my face-to-face classes have been sparsely attended, many meetings have been cancelled and our three campuses have been partially or completely closed several times.

Through all of this my online module has been ‘business as usual’ with students continuing to log on, complete their learning activities, comment on each others ideas, construct wiki pages together, post reflective blog entries, ask me questions, and build and upload their summative assessment tasks. Apart from one student stuck in a European airport, the snow has had virtually no impact on their capacity to engage in learning activities.

This brings to mind the indignation that some of my colleagues have voiced about the perceived ‘unreliability’ of online learning environments. I’ve heard some of them use concerns like ‘but what if the VLE goes down?’ as an excuse not to use one and cite examples of it ‘letting them down’ as a justifiable reason to never use eLearning again. In the past week, however, the infrastructure of face-to-face learning has proven enormously unreliable. Classrooms have been difficult to get to and sometimes closed down altogether. But not once have I heard a colleague remark that this would be cause enough for them to never use face-to-face teaching again.

And it’s not just snow and ice that can cause problems – I’ve had many classes, meetings and workshops interrupted by a fire-alarm, a power cut, flooding, broken heating or the noise of building work being carried out nearby. When things like this happen, most people simply shrug, find an alternative solution and simply get on with it. Why aren’t people so tolerant of occasional interruptions to online learning environments?

This period of bad weather has been a very timely reminder that no learning environment is ever going to be completely reliable. As I mentioned in a previous
post, they each have their strengths and their weaknesses and should be valued and tolerated for them.