Distance teaching and learning is difficult

I am not a great fan of “distance learning”. I have found out that it is very difficult – if not impossible – to build real group cohesion in a distance learning program. Now I am doing my best as a coordinator and a teacher in two different distance learning programs. Here are some notes about them.

What I really like in teaching and learning is the feeling that people are giving their best for the community. I guess this is actually the reason why I never got out or the academia. When it works well your colleagues and students are challenging you everyday: they argue with you, they share their thought and insights. They make you think.

I haven’t seen this really happening in distance learning programs. The freedom (or lack) of common space and time means often lack of commitment and responsibility. It just is difficult to build a distance learning community where people feel secure to present their so-called stupid questions and naïve hypothesis, which are anyway crucial in a good learning process.

However, the possibility to meet and work from distance with people you would never get a change to work with face-to-face makes the distance learning programs tempting. I am also seeing that when times go by we will have more students and scholars who are already somehow familiar with online communities and online cooperation. They will have more online (distance learning) skills. Maybe then this is a little easier.

The two programs I am right now involved in are rather different from each other and the other one is only just about starting. I haven’t done these kind of things for a while but it looks that it is just as difficult as I remember.

With UNESCO we have launch a pilot program called Art, Design and Technology Master Classes in the Arab States. Except us all the other partner Universities are in the Arab states. All the teachers of the program are also from the region. Our task has been to do the instructional design and to design, to help teachers in the content production, and to set-up the online environment (we are happy to use Moodle, which is definitely one of the best FLOS distance learning platforms). Actually the program is not all distance: selected number of students will get together in Beirut for one week to plan their final projects.

All ready it the stage of applications – you can apply to the program online – it has been challenging to communicate the program the right way for the students interested in it. Still, I am pretty sure that the application procedure will go smoothly. What I am worried about is how we will build the online community when people have never seen each other. My experience is that collaborative learning online is successful only if people know each other first face-to-face.

In the other program I am teaching seminar about “ online teaching and learning” (in Finnish, only). The participants are art teachers around Finland. They are working everyday as teachers in schools and doing their studies at nights and weekends. The whole program, they are in is 90% distance. They have face-to-face meeting with their local tutors, but seminars like mine are carried out online only.

In my seminar we try to simulate “seminar working”, so that all participants have their own “net teaching project” which they are developing during the course. The plan is to improve their original plan in a knowledge building kind of process. There is no “fixed curriculum” but I naturally try to direct the discussion around the projects to direction that is meaningful in the context of the course. As it is seminar I decided to use our own Fle3 platform and it’s knowledge building tool. It’s good to eat your own dog food!

So far the students have been very active. Of course there are individuals who are doing just what is asked for to pass the course, but most of them a really interested in to do their own “net teaching project”. The obvious link to their teaching in schools is of course a good motivational factor. The results of the seminar are usable ride away in their work. Still collaboration between the participants is a real challenge. After three weeks of intensive online working they have end-up to formualte very small groups of 2 or 3. Some participants are also focusing only on their own work. It is no more a community collaborating. Maybe the problem (if this is a problem, at all?) is that the participants do not have a shared object but rather these individual projects. I guess I must do some “social network analyses to get a real picture of this.

2 replies on “Distance teaching and learning is difficult”

You are right. 'Group Cohesion' is vital. To achieve that students and tutor must achieve authentic one to one communication. Then all those good things happen. Distance Learning courses can achieve this asynchronously when the learners work in sub groups of about six active students. Edinburgh and Glasgow universities published some interesting studies a few years ago that showed the importance of 'six' to stop broadcasting rather than authentic personal communication. (Sorry I do not have a reference at the moment) Talk to Gerry Prendergast (a former colleague) at he should be able to help bring your distance learning alive. He has been delivering exciting enjoyable successful distance learning for years. He should be able to point you to some of his published papers if nothing else.


Take a look at this:…I personally feel that:- solo work (individual objects, individual scripts, little or no communication between subjects)
– coordination (individual objects, little or no communication, shared script)
– cooperation (shared object, one script, some communication)
– collaboration (shared object, various shared alternative scripts, lots of communication)
– co-construction (shared object, script becomes the object or one of the objects to work on, lots of communication)all somewhat overlapping, but distinct conceptual concepts. I just can't fully explicate it yet, better than above.


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