#ocTEL week 2: learners’ needs and digital literacy

So how do you find out if you’re ready to take an online course? Well in my case you dive into one unthinkingly (ocTEL), complain about how difficult and confusing you’re finding it and then gradually try to find out why.

I took the questionnaires prepared by Penn State and Houston universities, which probed me on whether I had the skills and character traits required to take an online course (preferably, but not necessarily, theirs).

I was invited to agree with a series of self-affirmatory statements, some of which could have come straight from a cult’s indoctrination handbook (‘I am self-motivated’; ‘I am goal-oriented’; ‘I do not quit just because things get difficult’). I could only recall one negative statement (‘I am a procrastinator’) – I decided I’d come back to that one.

You wonder how many false positives this kind of questioning might produce. Meanwhile, the ‘crap detector‘ in me said that these universities have a vested interest in telling me that I have the skillset required to sign up for their online course.

In both questionnaires, many of the questions focused on skills that are necessary in any course (whether online or classroom-based) such as organisation, time management and self-motivation. Never mind taking an online course, it’s quite difficult to get out of bed and walk down the street without some of these.

The questions also enquired whether I had the IT skills and infrastructure required to take a course online. Would digital literacies really be a barrier to taking a course online? If a student is motivated to learn then surely he or she will acquire the skills they need, and quickly (see the ‘Hole in the Wall’ project in my previous post). Also, digital literacy can mean different things in different places. For instance in many parts of Africa getting access to a laptop computer is intensely difficult, but smartphone use is almost ubiquitous.

In global programmes, the educator’s job might be not to assess individual students’ skills but to stop themselves putting barriers in the way of motivated students who have only the most basic level of digital literacy (for example by using a VLE that’s simple and intuitive, or by building their resources around cheap or open-source technology).

Maybe study skills questionnaires could be most valuable if they enable educational institutions to improve the level of ‘pastoral care’ they provide to online students after they begin their studies. If someone says they’re not good at remembering deadlines, then send them automatic reminders when one’s coming up; if someone says they don’t learn well on their own, then put them in touch with a study group.

All of this could be almost entirely automatic and – here comes the magic word – scalable.

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