An innovative learning environment creates enormous flexibility but what happens when you have no walls at all? by Darren Sudlow

Future Opportunities: How could we organise online learning?

The growing numbers in our programmes means we need to think about how online classes should be organised to fully realise what the environment provides learners.

Our current model really represents the way we have always organised education in formal secondary settings. One teacher to 15-30 students and one classroom for that group. We have just transferred that model online and to some extent scaled the numbers back a bit. This has largely been driven by the needs of the video conference (large numbers mean less interaction), but also a wish to retain smaller class ratios to retain a more ‘personal’ experience for the student. But does this fully realise what the online environment can provide us? Especially when we are aiming for a more ‘connected’ approach. What is possible once you remove the four walls of the traditional classroom?

The rise of innovative learning environments (ILEs) has created significant questions about how we best use the resources at our disposal in more open, flexible spaces. This has lead to larger groupings of students (60-120 typically) with a group of teachers working together to flexibly meet the needs of all students.

When students are online in the asynchronous environment (Google+ communities, google suite, knowledge forum etc.) scale can create opportunity. In the past we may have split a class that got to 20 students depending on the teacher. As a result we have one teacher to ten students. On the face of it that can look a good thing, but it in fact limits possibilities. Twenty students can create far more capacity for interaction, idea building, discussion and sharing. This is what we want in a ‘connected’ online environment. But we still want to retain an effective teacher to student ratio. The answer is keep the students as a group in the asynchronous environment, but to have two teachers working together. You can then break down the group into tutorials of perhaps 10 students. The two teachers may not actually be full-time. One may be part-time. This means we can develop online courses that explore what is possible with scale in the asynchronous environment, while retaining the ‘personal touch’ that is important for online learning.

This year we have variations of this model being trialed in History, Economics and Media Studies so it will be interesting to monitor how this goes. There is little reason it can’t work extremely well for students and teacher alike. It just requires everyone to move out of their comfort zone just a little.

And of course the possibilities don't just stop there...