Image from the video ‘A Day Made of Glass’

I have had quite a lot of experience of distance learning, the most significant of which was studying for my degree with the Open University  in the  pre-digital 1980s.

The quality of the material provided  for these courses, six in total,  was always exceptional and explains why employers accept OU graduates as being on a par with those from ‘conventional’ universities.

Although the study  units were written with interactive components like  self-evaluation questions and/or discussion points to consider, studying alone meant I had to ponder on these topics in isolation.

During the time it took to earn a BA, what I remember most was not the stimulating texts but the  one week Summer Schools which gave me the opportunity to attend lectures and meet other students. This is what really ‘humanised’ the course and gave me the motivation to continue.

There are no such study breaks in the  E-Learning & Digital Cultures MOOC  (Massive Open Online Course) I am currently engaged in. This is just one of the ways in which it is different from previous learning experiences and yet  the question of human involvement is just as vital, perhaps even more so.

Without a means of seeing and responding to feedback, MOOCS would be little more than an above average set of web links. However good the online material is, these are resources that are available to anyone committed enough to seek them out. I can’t speak about MOOCS in general but what has made the e-learning one so satisfying is the level of spontaneous interaction it has generated.

Obviously there is no direct contact in person but message boards, discussion forums and other social media resources (Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Blogs etc.) offer the next best thing as these provide ample scope for learners to ‘chat’ or exchange points of view with each other. This has made me appreciate the fact that all online teaching resources must include the possibility of a two-way communication.

What I have enjoyed most from this MOOC is the chance to participate in the Tweetchat sessions (#edcchat) and to watch the team from Edinburgh University who set up the course  in a couple of live Google Hangouts.

In the Tweetchat yesterday, the question that generated the most interesting responses was : ‘Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self?’  This got me thinking that my own online persona IS different because blogging and tweeting allows me the chance to be more opinionated than I am in ‘real life’. Not being a particularly outgoing type, I often spend more time listening than speaking; in other words, being online gives me a voice. Such reflections touch on one of the course’s central themes of what it means to be human in a world increasingly dominated by technology.

Teachers of MOOCS or ‘blended’ courses should be more engaged in facilitating than merely imparting a series of facts to be memorised. The issues surrounding the changing role of  educational institutions in the 21st Century are complex and there are many imponderables. Finding the best way forward is not clear-cut as we are, quite literally, immersed within a web of conflicting and competing options. Gardner Campbell’s keynote speech ‘Ecologies of Yearning’  hit the right note for me when he spoke of future learning not merely as ‘open’ but as an ‘opening’ experience that is able to meet and respond to the creative potential of learners in exciting new ways.

The bottom line is that it is not possible to feel ‘connected’ with any internet-based learning resources unless there is a sense that there is a human being at the other end of the line.