Online Learning and its Discontents

Around ten years ago an IT-savvy colleague called me a shoveller. It was an accusation; that I was not rising to the challenges of e-learning because I was simply shovelling resources I had already developed (in a previous era) onto an e-learning space (like Blackboard). I was guilty as charged and I was grateful to him for alerting me to the need to curriculum-build from the ground up, and to accept that the principles of universal design applied equally to the world of IT as anything else.

Things have moved on apace in the last ten years; unfortunately my pace has been that of an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping (to quote Blackadder, Series 4). For example, this blog will contain no embedded links and no images. Perhaps I should apologise for that, but, on the other hand, I look at many blogs and see that the embedded links simply take me to sources that I could have got to via a traditional reference list, and the images…well, where do I start? Far too often for my liking I see a photo of a mountain next to a sentence about rising to a challenge, or a photo of a classroom because the author happens to be talking about education. As Billy Connolly once said about weather forecasters, I don’t need to see an icon of the sun to know what the real sun looks like. And here’s my point, is this really pedagogic progress or are we just – in the words of Neil Postman – amusing ourselves to death (Postman, 1985), this time through online learning?

I decided to write this blog because I know I’m a bit of a luddite, and I hope my thesis will prompt someone to counter each point with a solid anti-thesis. So, what is the thesis?: that we could be losing more than we are gaining through online learning, mainly because the technology is more advanced than we are, and we are finding it increasingly difficult to put it in its place – the cart is ahead of the donkey, so to speak. Naturally, the covid pandemic has forced even me to embrace the online technology, so a related question is whether we really are looking at the future or whether people will clamber for the good old hybrid days, if we’re ever allowed to get near each other again?

Let’s take zooming (by which I mean all similar video conferencing platforms). I think I’ve got on pretty well with it; I’ve even run a successful conference with it. Apart from anything else, attracting 600 conference delegates rather than the usual 150 was fantastic. But there did seem to be a lot of shovelling going on, where presenters presented in much the same way as they would have done face-to-face, or does that not matter? And in zoom discussions, is it me or do they often resemble an episode of the American sitcom Friends, where each of the six characters methodically take it in turn to say something? Indeed, the technology makes it hard for anything else to happen. Is that really what a conversation is like?

Haven’t humans invested thousands of hours in learning how read and decode face-to face conversations; learnt how to deal with the loudmouth and the interrupter and to gauge something about them from the way they present themselves? And don’t we learn huge amounts from reading body language; taking cues from eye contact; witnessing mirroring behaviours; and so on? Are we really exercising these skills even in synchronous video contexts? More generally, haven’t we become hard-wired to expect to be in the presence of others; to experience pleasure and pain from potential tactile encounters and receive olfactory sense data?

It is probably too early to fully assess the data which is coming in on how students are experiencing the new online university, and it will – no doubt – produce a complicated and contradictory picture. Yes, there are reports of students wanting their money back or at least a discount, but some of that probably relates to not getting what they were expecting, and it’s difficult to blame universities for having to adapt quickly in unprecedented times. Some students seem quite happy with their online experiences, but are disappointed about losing the more usual forms of networking and socialising. But some students seem quite happy about not having to come to campus very often. In the past many of these students would have been those juggling work and domestic commitments with their studies, but are some these students the ones who stand to benefit most from the traditional close contact with tutors – as evidenced by Graham Gibbs (2010)?

All of this begs the obvious questions about whether online tutorials can really enhance learning in the ways that Gibbs outlined, and whether we are now being forced into underplaying the richness of the networking which goes on around learning and teaching in higher education, including at conferences.

For me, I’m grateful that I can still run workshops and do talks via Zoom, but I hate not being able to take my traditional cues from the audience. I’m still doing a lot of spade work, but, looking around, I see a lot of others shovelling away (thank goodness it’s not just me). I continue to be unimpressed with Twitter because I don’t like having to wade through all the information and entertainment to get to some education, or even edutainment (or maybe I just need to be more discerning). And I worry about people being a little too enamoured by what the latest platforms can do, rather than whether they will truly enhance what we did without them (or am I just past my sell-by date?).


Gibbs, G. (2010) Dimensions of Quality. York: HEA.
Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Penguin.

John Lea, Independent Higher Education Consultant

5 thoughts on “Online Learning and its Discontents

  1. Really interesting perspective. Have been doing some work recently on the difficulty of using emotional intelligence when teaching online – for example, it’s impossible to pick up on the cues you mention when students turn off their cameras and mute their mics. Subsequently, we lose one of our key skills as teachers – being able to change things up based on the reaction it gets (or doesn’t get!). Glad someone else is asking similar questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John
    Thank you for this.
    Two, out of a possible million or so, comments:
    – I’m not sure of the utility of comparing a currently mostly available teaching method (online) with one that is currently mostly unavailable (in-person).
    – Start from the pedagogy. Of course. But – all pedagogies are partly an artifact of the technology of the time. Listening. Reading. Writing. Keyboarding. Direct-to-brain transfer – sorry, getting a bit ahead there. Anyway. Each new technology opens up new possible pedagogies. Which we might try, play with, and then selectively use. Not “if they replicate the old methods”. But “if they allow / support / provoke good, effective, possibly new, kinds of good learning.” Of course, we’d have to know about good learning. Which I think we do! See for example Baume, D. and Scanlon, E., 2018. What the research says about how and why learning happens. In: R. Luckin, ed., Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology – What the Research Says, 1st ed. London: UCL IoE Press, pp.2-13. And many sources besides.
    Best wishes
    Looking forward, with a few ideas on which direction “forward” might be.


  3. Thank you for this, I really enjoyed reading it.

    While you appeal for an anti-thesis to your thesis, sadly I am unable to offer one, because I actually agree with a lot of what you’ve said. I agree that online technology (or technologies) have developed far more quickly than our own ability to use them to their full potential, and so the cart is indeed before the horse. But, I also think that the largest problem is that we are, even at this hopefully-late stage of the pandemic, still using ever-diversifying technological innovations to try and replicate the ‘normal’ environment, but that new technologies actually constantly move us away from it. In essence, every new technological development, piece of software, program, platform or ‘widget’ (sigh) is still framed and/or perceived as somehow better enabling us to move closer to replicating the ‘real’ environment, but in actual fact every one moves us just that little bit further away from it. I think it’s this that’s causing us to ‘try’ each new technological innovation once and then for it to disappear into the ether very quickly. I wonder how many pieces of software have appeared over the past year with claims that it will somehow revolutionise online teaching, only to vanish again within a matter of days, dismissed as unworkable or unnecessary? I think we want new technologies to bring us closer to ‘normal’, but each innovation is actually a step away from it, and so almost all of them inevitably leave us largely disappointed.

    The solution may be for us to embrace online teaching as a wholly separate field from ‘normal’ face to face delivery and that it comes with entirely new principles and practices. If we accept that digital teaching can run alongside the ‘normal’ way of teaching, we can start separating the two on a more conscious level. But that’s just an initial thought with no weight behind it at all.

    Just a thought, thanks again for a wonderful post.



  4. Thanks David,

    My rejoinder would be – on your first point – that now is not a bad time to be comparing the old with the new (even if the old is unavailable) because the now popular notion that `there’s no turning back’ (TOTB – remember TINA!) could easily evaporate when people get a chance to return to the old. Echoing Joni Mitchell, perhaps you never what you have got until it’s gone.

    On the second set of points, I find it difficult to disagree, but, embracing Sam’s point, perhaps some of the principles for online learning are different, in which case forms of hybrid learning may be a matter of `horses for courses’?


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