Some thoughts on using distance education- and e-learning for informal teaching situations

I will start here an ongoing collection of thoughts on how distance education tools might be applied to initiate and enhance learning in countless situations of our daily and community life. If every member of a local community would just take a short look beyond the rim of her/his teacup, it should become obvious that there is numerous ways to make a meaningful contribution to community life. One way to do so is to teach others knowledge and skills that might help them to make a difference in their personal situations; another option is to help one’s learners to gain confidence through joyful learning experiences, that way improving their life quality.

Evidently, those who need help the most often have no or only very limited access to education. Various reasons can play a role here, and it goes of course by far beyond my knowledge and the scope of this blog to analyze them all.
Some very complex aspects to consider would be how profoundly individuals in disadvantaged, impoverished and underserved communities are shaped by their financial situation as much as by their socio-cultural background. Many do not even consider the possibility that education might be a way to improve their live situation, since it seems an unreachable goal. The high costs for good education at many institutions convey a sense of hopelessness and being excluded, thus adding significantly to the already existing psychological barriers to learning in their heads.
I am an enthusiastic follower of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, but I also see that we cannot diminish the enormous social inequalities in our society (or worldwide) by simply making course material openly available and then leave it with that, as Tony Bates wrote in his blog critique on the current status of available OERs (Bates, 2011, para. The Ugly). Course design and learner support are crucial, and effective learning is more than just „shovelling coal into a truck“. (Bates, 2011, para. What do we mean by ‘content’?).

But the question that came to my mind in this context was:
What would be suitable pre-requisites and conditions, under which the truck (i.e. an OER- recipient and potentially our student) is able to take up coal at all – whether delivered by shoveling or in a more pedagogically sophisticated way? And can available DE- & e-learning tools assist here? I believe yes. I think that for potential learners who often had bad experiences in traditional, formal educational systems, unconventional, internet-based approaches might be a way to explore areas from which they felt excluded thus far.

Below, I would like to describe one example for a strategy of how I could imagine approaching this issue. As always, critique and suggestions from more experienced educators is warmly invited. The idea for the potential target group I chose for this example (junior and senior high school students from a problematic district in a US East coast city) came from a mentoring activity I was involved in over the past summer. My assigned mentees were usually reluctant to study, feeling discouraged by a series of bad experiences with their teachers or through difficulties comprehending the material taught in class. In addition, most students had very obvious issues focusing for longer than a few minutes, constantly checking for text messages. [I realize the latter is not a problem intrinsic to my mentees]. With regard to Tony Bates’ picture of the truck, I would say that it was definitely not in a condition to take up any meaningful material, especially not coal. The aim of my mentoring activity was trying to give the students incentives to do their homework and being available for questions and explanations. It took me a long time to build an atmosphere of trust between the mentees and myself, but even then, the students often showed little willingness to study. But I did realize that almost everybody liked working with the school computers. Computer games and other distractions were not allowed, of course. So by the end of the mentoring program, I thought about how this computer attraction might be used to provide learning incentives.

In a future mentoring situation, I might thus try to implement e-learning activities. The most difficult part will probably always be to build up trust, thus gaining access to their minds (interestingly, another type of accessibility challenge) and establishing a relaxing learning atmosphere. Since formal learning methods will probably be ineffective, I might try to find learning objects, instructive movies and educational games that I would explore together with the students. Using free software packages like Moodle, more advanced e-learning instructors (with a lot of time, patience and idealism) might consider designing exploratory and interactive learning paths, related to concepts and topics that are relevant to the students in their regular classes, that way providing an alternative, more playful approach to convey information. Once students have the first aha-events, the might feel encouraged to explore more, hopefully to some degree in a self-motivated fashion. The usually scarce availability of computers in public schools does not necessarily pose a problem, since all e-learning activities can be carried out in teams as well (team-skill building). As a guided and instructor-accompanied capstone project, I could imagine helping students to set up avatars in applications like Second Life, which we could then use to pay virtual visits to exciting places of educational value, e.g. campuses of surrounding colleges or the library of congress (almost like a field trip). Overall, my hope would be to design and accompany learning activities sufficiently close and relevant to my student’s lives that curiosity and creativity on the long run help to overcome psychological barriers, that way opening the road for them to feel joy and excitement instead of fear and frustration when in a learning situation. For the students, this might mean a first step towards realizing that college might be an achievable aim.

This blog series will be continued as soon as I encounter other informal learning situations for which I feel the application of DE and e-learning tools might be beneficial. Ideas and thoughts from people experienced and engaged in community service activities are more than welcome!

Bates, T. (2011). Blog on OERs: the good, the bad and the ugly. Retrieved from

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One Response to Some thoughts on using distance education- and e-learning for informal teaching situations

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on using distance education- and e-learning for informal teaching situations | Teacher Ideas

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