Learning-Inspired: A Few Perspectives on Online Learning

67_cover_finalsmallBy Jason Skinner

It is 10:30 pm, a Thursday night, which means I am on my way to a study group. For roughly a year and a half, a dozen students have been meeting every other week to discuss adult learning. Folks begin to arrive. The atmosphere is friendly. People catch up. The facilitator calls for our week’s reading discussion to begin.

Arguably, other than software, no field has been more influenced by the Openphilosophy than the distribution of educational content. By Open, I refer to free, unrestricted access to something that is reusable. Open source software exists through a cooperation of designers across the planet collaborating to make a viable free alternative to proprietary technology available to any user. Open education content refers to a similar global collaboration where people share what they know with others.

In the academic sphere, educators from around the world are providing open content by creating learning materials out of their expertise and then sharing freely. In essence, this move to open knowledge has been traditionally housed in the university. The scene, however, is changing: the open educational resource movement is removing the cost and institutional property issues from our paths so that we can learn as we will, and at little or no cost. There are many open, or nearly-open, models, each which presents interesting challenges for designers, instructors, and students.

For example, Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) serves as a model for delivering learning content online to any person who wants to take a course in just about any given subject area. MOOCs are free, but there is no limit on attendance, so some have roster sizes in the tens of thousands. However, there are structures that allow students in these courses to work in smaller sub-groups to make interactions manageable and more personalized. Take a look at EdX (www.edx.org) ) and Coursera (www.coursera.org) to take free MOOC courses from MIT, Harvard, Stanford and other top-level universities from around the world.

The question is: can we have heartwarming, fulfilling learning experiences through our screens with one another? I say yes. My online study group emerged into a unit of people that connects with one another, has grown to trust putting their ideas and criticisms to each other, and has fun learning through discourse. We are productive. Our study group is lively and filled with laughter.

This is remarkable because I have never been physically in the same room with over half of the participants. Despite this, I would recognize each of them on the street, because I see them regularly. We have all become colleagues. A few folks and I have grown to be friends. It is this feeling of community that enables fulfilling learning experiences to happen.

In fact, I would like to revise the question from “can we have fulfilling learning experiences through our screens?” to “Why do we want to have fulfilling learning experiences through our screens?” In the case of my online study group, we want to pull diverse cultural perspectives together into a frame for our ongoing conversation on a specific topic. To get this diversity, we pull our voices from around the world together using computers.

Is it like being face to face? Certainly not. We use Skype, among other technologies. Most of the time we use an audio connection, so it feels similar to a large conference call. I think all of us would like to be in the same room, but we make do because we want to talk together and the content is relevant.

Like using a new cell phone, the novelty and technical difficulty of a new online communication technology soon passes. Once you are used to the technology, it becomes secondary, allowing authentic communication to be your primary concern.

There is a not a search engine to help you find an online community of learners with whom you will instantly feel connected. Much like taking a course face-to-face or a workshop at your community center, you inevitably find a person whose contributions you respect. If you make the effort to interact, possibly you’ll find a connection. Online or offline, friendship takes some work. In my experience both as an online learner and instructor, I have seen folks make a connection in one course and then go on to take other courses together. Slowly, by meeting like-minded travelers, they create a learning community.

It is night, morning, tomorrow, yesterday. We are twelve adults all sitting by ourselves in offices and kitchens throughout the US, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Spain. We are all separated by vast distance, time zones, and liquid crystal displays, yet we are together, we are in a global conversation. Our study group is not just computer-mediated, it is learning-inspired.

The Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org): searchable database with over 6000 peer reviewed academic research journals.

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (www.merlot.org): hosts around 40,000 different peer reviewed instructional resources.

Also, take a look at ED.Ted.com, Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), and PBS Learning Media (www.pbslearningmedia.org).

The Open Courseware Consortium (www.ocwconsortium.org): materials and content from nearly 200 universities from 46 countries.

iTunes University began by partnering with Stanford and now houses courses and materials from hundreds of institutions.

Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) and the Internet Archive (www.archive.org).

Jason Skinner is a PhD candidate in Organizational Learning and Instructional Technology at the University of New Mexico. When not meeting with colleagues from around the world virtually for discourse and tea, he enjoys teaching people to become builders with multimedia technologies so that they too can share their stories.

Culture Pulse is a pursuit in understanding the attitudes, questions and manifestations of human creativity in co-cultivating a community that nourishes lives of meaning.


In the Spring 2013 issue, Caleb Buchbinder guided us through the evolution of his own self-designed curriculum. He showed how a 30-day walking experience with thePhilosophy of Freedom from Sacramento to Los Angeles helped inaugurate a project called Classroom Alive, which has now crossed over to Europe as others engage in their own walking-learning independent adventures. Clearly, the Culture Pulse pages are not just about education—we’ve touched upon social activism, community building, the arts, and many other cultural areas to get a sense of our times. It is important to recognize that our continual development as adults outside of the formal classroom is essential. Discovering what others are doing, and how they are connecting to resources, colleagues, peers, teachers, and uncovering their areas of study or interest is an important part of developing a rich cultural experience. With the internet, the world and all of human knowledge is so easily at our fingertips, which can be fantastic and simultaneously overwhelming. How do we sort through the noise to find the gems? In this issue, Jason Skinner helps us to understand what’s out there, how to make sense of it all, and what might motivate us to find others across space and time with whom we might want to enter a virtual classroom. —Leslie Loy