Futurelearn: the definitive future of learning?

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Lancaster’s involvement in an online-learning platform launched by the Open University this year draws further attention to the contention surrounding the shift towards Internet-based learning. Not only in Higher Education does the issue divide opinion: schools and colleges are increasingly faced with the need to engage with their students on a ‘multi-platform’ basis in an attempt to give them the edge over their intellectual competition.

Futurelearn has obvious grounds on which to advocate its services: free courses to be completed from the student’s own home are inevitably appealing in this era of austerity and increased living- and learning-costs.

Online-learning faces criticism from those whose main concern centres on the potential for academic misconduct if, as is the aim of the Open University (OU) with its digital courses, assessment is conducted away from the strictly-regulated conditions of the exam hall. Yet, supporters may well argue that those who wish to cheat do so under the status quo, invigilators or no, and this concern is not restricted to the domain of online- or distance-learning. Coursework now has to be fed through purpose-built algorithms designed to flag up potential instances of plagiarism because the Internet is rife with sources for academic pirating. The BBC recently reported that one proposition under consideration by the OU to enable learners to complete their courses entirely from the comfort of their own homes is to use webcams or key-stroke reading software to monitor candidates as they sit exams. It seems that, as technology advances and becomes appropriated for further means to study-shortcuts, the ways of tackling academic misconduct must also embrace evermore advanced permutations.

The benefits of teaching that makes use of the advances in technology are considerable. You only have to take a cursory glance around a lecture theatre today to notice the proliferation of netbook, laptop and e-reader usage. A Dictaphone feels somewhat quaint in comparison. Yet, however the student copes with the fifty-minute lecture, the associated learning extends beyond the timetabled window. Moodle, and its predecessor LUVLE, provides an interface through which to communicate with staff and other students, as well as access to key resources that supplement timetabled contact-time. Office hours and tutorials are no longer sufficient: students now demand access to the PowerPoint slides (sometimes weeks in advance of the lecture) for future reference, exchange frantic questions over social media the night before an essay deadline, expect podcasts or downloadable PDFs of that week’s reading, and instant email responses from our tutors. Technology has spoilt us by teaching us that information can be instantly accessible. Almost everything is a click away, whether an answer, a friend, or a pair of shoes. It may be that the 9K tuition-fee debacle has accelerated this process, as students want now more than ever to receive their money’s worth.

Some members of Lancaster’s teaching staff have expressed concerns at the increasing prominence of online resources at the University. Neither students nor staff can afford to be technophobes now that the Virtual Learning Environment has been cemented into the university culture as a multi-purpose conduit for information and communication. Some courses are now also trialling specialist audio-visual recording software, Panopto, to capture lectures for students’ future reference. One worry is that if all lecture resources are available outside the lecture theatre then many students may not bother to turn up for timetabled teaching. For some, the idea of a cyber-lecture is an uncomfortable one which reduces the university ethos to a mere exchanging of words, rather than a communal experience of the exploration of ideas.

The Futurelearn programme is not yet a way of attaining a full degree qualification. Perhaps the potential technological pitfalls need first to be ironed out before that follows as a natural progression of online distance-learning. Online-learning for those based at their institution is, at present, an invaluable supplement rather than replacement. For now, it would be churlish to reject the benefits of online-learning for the sake of the issues will need to be addressed as we move into the next generation of academic interaction.

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