In many respects, the regular occurrence of systematic features is what makes a course a course. It is these features which tell us that we are moving from one section to another and thus that we have indeed “moved on”. Whether anything has been learnt is another matter, but from course design perspective, the impression of progress is important. There are pedagogical and administrative concerns as well – you select material to help you fulfill the course objectives and you then group that material into thematically linked modules – the systematic features tell us that we are at the beginning of a module, half way through the middle or approaching the end.
The advantages are then that the systematic features orientate us to our position within the module. When we encounter a particular feature we know (a) where we are and (b) what is expected of us (at least after the initial stages). The unfamiliar then becomes familiar and allows us to function and contribute effectively, thus adding to our own feelings of accomplishment and learning. The disadvantages are that these features can act as a bit of a straight-jacket – they might constrain learning by not allowing for experimentation beyond the task or they might constrain the teaching by not allowing the tutor to do something innovative. Plus, it might all get a bit boring.
This is just as true for face to face courses as it is for online – coursebooks in fact make a virtue of their systematic features (or try to). An example of this is Cutting Edge if you find your copy of the book and flick through it, you’ll find that the format of each module is broadly similar – some variation in layout and sequence perhaps, but the sections and design of the tasks is pretty much the same throughout. I think where F2F courses differ from the online is that the F2F teacher is freer to just throw their hands in the air and say “You know what? Today we’re going to….” – an online teacher, I don’t think, has that liberty. The units and materials are very often “up there” and the tutors and participants simply access them as they get to them, though obviously the tutors control the rate of access and when materials get released.
There is then, much more reliance on the course materials in the online world. The teacher is not so much of a resource as they are in face to face and the learners, who are often pushed for time and have busy lives elsewhere, tend to prefer only to do those tasks that they feel will be of benefit to them passing the course. Very often what happens (and here I speak from experience of both a teaching and learning perspective) is that participants log in, cut and paste their answers into the forum and log off again. There is reluctance – but not always – to engage in anything that doesn’t meet the course requirements and building the interaction between participants is therefore more difficult in the online world than in the offline world,
But you could also argue that the lack of rigidity and possibility of variance is a weakness in face to face teaching – the students are at the mercy of the teacher and have no choice but to participate in the lessons the teacher has provided. If the teacher doesn’t really feel up for it that day and decides to put on a movie / documentary / episode of The Simpsons and ask a bunch of content questions at the end to justify showing the thing, what else can the students do?
It seems that the course itself is a thing that needs to have a programmed rigidity, or perhaps certainty would be a better word. Whether it is online or offline, teachers need to know what they are going to teach and students need to know what they are going to learn. Within that though, there needs to be flexibility to deal with matters arising and the opportunity to dive off into something useful and interesting that isn’t on the original program. This is an area where I think online courses are lacking at the moment, but perhaps this too, as the medium develops, is beginning to change?
Note: I originally wrote parts of this post as part of my training to tutor online, when I did the IHCOLT in 2o13 and I had a reflective blog related to my training. I’m now rationalising that blog and am migrating some of the content here, rather than lose it all. Since I did the IHCOLT, I’ve been working as an online tutor with IH OTTI and I have updated this post to reflect this experience and my changing thinking.