Online Learning: Net Gain or Nett Loss?

In the mid 1990s, a major client demanded I get myself an email account so he could contact me via email. I didn’t appreciate it then but his insistence did, within five years, lead to my moving from designing websites and running a business to researching the internet. Well do I recall my delight at the bounty before me once the 14.4baud modem stopped screeching and squawking (see video). That, on reflection, is when working and learning came together for me.

Today, my work as an academic is to learn, to create and share my knowledge. I am repeatedly exhorted to take my teaching and research online. I admit to being (perhaps unduly) troubled by it. Having materials online rather than ensconced in libraries does create convenient pathways for learning. Nonetheless, let us be clear: online learners may free themselves of the constraints of structured time ala Castells’ (1999) ‘timeless time’ but there is a world of difference between having a book on your bookshelf and reading it.


Which brings me to the notion of the ‘space of flows’ (Castells, 1999) where flow dominates and place matter less. The Australian universiy sector is currently abuzz with talk of MOOCs (massive online open courses). Learning at one’s own pace and place is a seductive notion and at its most basic, is what the exercise of reading comprises. There is no doubt some value to online learning formats.

Still, I would contend that there are lessons to be learnt individually and lessons to be absorbed socially and on-campus classes are about the latter. To extend the metaphor, one book, good or bad, thoroughly discussed and pored over with others is worth a hundred well-bound copies gathering dust on the shelf.

In the final weighing-up of nett loss or gain, does taking teaching online make for better learning or merely more convenient learning?  And if the latter, can my responsibilities as an educator end with the placement of material online?

Castells, Manuel. 1999. “An introduction to the information age”. In The media reader: continuity and transformation, edited by Hugh Mackay and Tim O’Sullivan, 398-410. London: Sage Publications.

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