Online learning as a systemic solution rather than post-Covid classroom transition?

The danger of the single story; the pragmatism of pluralism

Simon Whittemore

While online learning can never fully replicate the in-person dynamic, especially the latter’s affective impact,  it may be helpful, given current circumstances and future probabilities, to consider online learning as a systemic solution rather than think of it as the classroom transitioned online.
I would like to make three observations in relation to this (technology sustainability, availability and neutrality is also an important issue but I won’t try and deal with that here).

1. Lifelong learning is not only a Sustainable Development Goal but also an essential feature of modern education whether professional or “academic” (domains that are becoming better integrated), given the increased rate of change plus the complexity and ambiguity within which any individual or organisation has to operate. Lifelong learning needs to be to a large extent online if we are serious about equality of learning opportunity as well as breadth and plurality of content (by plurality, I am thinking of Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful message around the danger of the single story).

Image courtesy of TED talks: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story


2. Making online learning effective and genuinely engaging is no easy matter; in fact it is the life’s work of many fellow professionals. The design of online learning – for example embedding andragogical (e.g. cycle of experiential learning) or heutagogical principles in the design, choice of format and media, interactivity enablers, technology flexibility etc. – is a complex cross-disciplinary craft. Online learning which is able to stimulate not only the cognitive learning domain but also the social and affective is likely to be more impactful. Online learning which, in dealing with a topic, is designed to stimulate different and various aspects of our intelligence – eg visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, rhythmic-musical, emotional  etc. – offers more possibilities for sustained engagement and commitment to memory, especially given that everyone has different doors to learning.

Multiple intelligences, (Howard Gardner’s theory)


3. Perhaps most importantly, the practice of learning seems to be evolving towards an ever greater degree of learner autonomy and this trend appears to be accelerating. From how teenagers teach themselves, in many cases preferring to develop their interests using a variety of online sources over the “authority” of a “teacher”, to how professionals are required to continually hone and advance their skills to stay competitive in a rapidly changing working context, there is a clear movement towards, and need for, greater autonomy. Old didactic models no longer work. But here likes a danger too: the quality, plurality and integrity of online sources is more critical than ever, as are the critical faculties of the learner. Hase and Kenyon made the case in 2003 for heutagogy (self-determined learning) and while integrating this into mainstream education can be a significant challenge (Stoszkowski and McCarthy, online 2019) with much careful guidance needed, heutagogical approaches do seem to be an effective means of developing people’s learning agility (learning to learn, continuing to learn), which is arguably one of the most important transversal competencies of this century.