Along with my colleague Nicky Hockly, I am currently halfway through (three weeks out of a total of six) an iteration of one of our online courses called ‘mLearning in Practice‘. We’ve just finished the first three weeks, concerned with big picture stuff, contexts and concerns – and now we’re moving on to the second half, which is more practical and leads to a final action plan for each participant. We have fourteen people from nine countries as far apart as Brazil, New Zealand and Russia.
The course is going extremely well, I think: the discussions are engaging, the content seems to be relevant and interesting to people, and discussions are wide-ranging and stimulating. In the first three weeks we have had 580 forum postings from sixteen people (that includes Nicky and me) in seven forums. This strikes me as an extraordinary quantity of posts, particularly as a very small percentage of them has been ‘me too’ style postings – indeed, most of them have been content-driven and have pushed discussions forward. It’s a hard life being an online tutor – and just as hard being an online participant in a course that works.
And that, of course, led me to thinking about why it works… [ more after the fold ]
These have to be the most important element of an online course. The people who do courses with us are highly motivated professionals looking for specialised teacher development opportunities. They’re usually working, paying for themselves, and determined to get the most out of the course. In this instance we have a wide variety of people from very disparate contexts and from very different countries. As such they have a lot to share with each other, and a lot to learn from each other. They’ve also come to the course with some kind of experience (even if it’s purely personal) of using mobile and handheld devices, and strong opinions on the goods, bads and uglies… In a couple of cases they are very experienced in this growing field.
Of course you do need some decent materials and content – but in this type of course it’s more a case of winding people up (in the nicest possible way, of course) and setting them off on a journey together. We provide a structured developmental shell, but it doesn’t work unless people are prepared to go with the flow and push beyond the initial offering to seek out shared learning moments. This group is truly amazing in that respect. Our tasks are structured and developmental (we hope) but they don’t ‘teach’ (not in that way, at least) – the learning comes from engaging with the tasks and interacting with the others. Without the group dynamic, it wouldn’t work.
We all like a party with an atmosphere (!) As both Nicky and I have said on many occasions, if you don’t work on the group dynamic for a little while at the beginnng of the course, then you might as well forget it – not only in terms of pair and groupwork, but also in terms of discussion, humour and going beyond the actual materials. There were a few connections on this course between participants, and new friendships have been made, but those first few days make all the difference to the success of a course. At the beginning of each weekly block we try to include a simple task that reminds everyone that they’re working with new friends… that we’re all in this together. It’s worth it – believe me. In fact, after the people themselves, I’d say this is the most important part.
The more I think about it, the more the poor materials seem to be relegated in this list…
There are other factors, of course – but I feel a new conference talk coming on, so I’d better keep something back for that. In the meantime, here’s my suggestion for running a good online training course:
- Get yourself a lovely group of exciting and excited professionals from around the world
- Make sure they all get introduced to each other
- Give them a few things to think about
- Sit back and watch what happens
- Interject where needed
It’s not rocket sicence, but when it works it certainly can seem like it!