the pitfalls of online learning

I was meant to begin the Association for Software Testing’s “Foundations” course this week. I applied and paid some time ago, but never did receive the information I needed to begin my online course. I should have followed up earlier… but I waited, assuming it would come. Woops.

The course has been running since the 21st now, without me. I’ve been emailing and phoning them since some time last week. Where does this leave me?

I love what the AST is doing, and this isn’t a slag on them at all. There are a couple issues here, and they’re horribly relevant to the online university I work at:

1) They may have emailed me. That’s the first problem: email gets lost. Spam filters and sorting macros have a way of eating it, even if it survives that they have a way of vanishing into piles of other messages. Email is fantastic, but it often isn’t enough, especially without a follow up. If someone doesn’t answer an email, they may not have received it. We need to think a lot about the limitations of online communication.

2) Students in online environments are invisible. When all you are is a number on a registration list, things can become very impersonal. The problem escalates with rising class sizes. It’s something that online organizations should be thinking about… systems that might work for aggressive, passionate students may also drop the quiet ones, and unlike a physical classroom, nobody will notice when they stop attending. Without diligent followup and attention, students that are having issues can vanish without a trace.

3) Customer support is even more important online than in person. Email forms are great, but they don’t replace a person’s voice. When people plug their credit card into a website, they get really ansy when they can’t find a human to talk to.  There’s something horribly off putting to most people about computer answer services and their “don’t call us, we’ll call you” attitude it projects. Good for after hours, not great for 24/7 answering.

4) Technology has to be obvious and carefully explained. It’s possible that I’m overlooking some course participation area on the website. Maybe there’s something I should be doing here… but how the course runs, and what it looks like, is still not at all obvious to me. “Our system works, it’s fine,” may seem to be good enough to the people that owned and designed it, but it may look entirely different to a new user.

That’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. Some of them are things that we talk about at my own institution a lot, some things that we talk about more. Sometimes we accept sacrifices to cut costs in those areas due to resourcing restraints, but with mixed outcomes. Anyway. A few interesting thoughts on an otherwise frustrating experience. Hopefully I can still take part in this or a future training course with AST. For now I’m waiting for a phone call.


UPDATE:  I have spoken to the course organizer and he was very apologetic and pleasant. I’ll probably end up catching the course next time around.  I don’t have any hard feelings about what’s happened, but it’s worth thinking about the lessons in communication and medium.


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