Sunday, 5 June 2011

Learner support in collaborative online learning

Rethinking learner support: the challenge of collaborative online learning’ (Thorpe, 2002) 

This paper looks at course design and learner support, and the blurring of the boundary between the two which occurs in online learning facilitated by computer-mediated communication. Traditionally learner support has been that which happens after course materials are developed. However, in courses with considerably less pre-planned material and greater emphasis on generation of course content through online interaction and collaboration, course design and learner support start to merge. 

'Learner support' in open and distance learning has a specific meaning, referring to:
  • guidance about course choice,
  • preparatory diagnosis,
  • study skills
  • access to group learning, etc. 
Key points:
  • Use of technology does not guarantee collaborative and constructivist approaches to learning - this depends on how the technology is used -> course design.
  • It is important to make sure that we do not lose the values of conversation and community in technicist approaches.
  • Learner support is not just provided of 'done to' the student; support is produced and consumed simultaneously - the learner must participate actively, as must the tutor/supporter.
  • Key functions of learner support are:
    • response, and
    • responsiveness, in relation to three essential and inter-related elements: identity, interaction and time/duration.
  • Thorpe defines learner support as 'all those elements capable of responding to a known learner or group of learners, before, during and after the learning process.' Therefore, pre-planned course materials or computer programmes, which cannot respond, cannot offer support.
  • Thorpe's three elements of learner support:
    • Identity - the supporter knows that the learner is a person with an identity. Identities also change in parallel with progress through a course, so support needs to be appropriately modulated.
    • Interaction - learner support is essentially to do with interpersonal interaction -> learner support is therefore also culturally specific. Interaction is key to all main theories of learner support
    • Time/duration - learner support is a 'live' process which has duration. It is defined by the actions of the learners and supporters involved, and so is a dynamic and not wholly predictable process.
  • Electronic communication has been used to provide another medium for support, rather than changing its nature. Online learner support is, however, increasing the frequency of learner to learner and learner to institution contact.
  • Online, collaborative approaches may be experiences as reducing an individual's freedom to study at their own pace (Thorpe, 1998).
  • Changes in course production (with increase in collaborative, constructivist designs) may mean lower initial production costs are feasible, but "costs during presentation are likely to increase, to sustain the IT infrastructure and realise the benefits of continual updating and learner support online".
  • "It takes considerable ingenuity, design and appropriate educational goals in order to achieve a course where interaction online is absolutely essential in order to pass, rather than a highly desirable enrichment.
I'm feeling slightly hazy about the scaffolding/support distinction. Thorpe argues that computer programmes can't offer support as they are unable to recognise human identity, but previous literature on scaffolding has suggested that computer tools can provide scaffolding...

Thorpe's comment on increasing costs is interesting. It stands in start contrast to the view/argument/sales pitch that online learning will be cheaper. Thorpe's arguments about the importance of community and constructivist learning are persuasive - if we move to cheaper to produce 'one size fits all' design then our learner support provision will undoubtedly be weakened, and our opportunity to develop engaging constructivist learning will have been missed.

Thorpe, M. (2002) ‘Rethinking learner support: the challenge of collaborative online learning’, Open Learning, vol.17, no.2, pp.105–19.

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