Diving Into Online Learning

By Sandy Burgham

online learning

Studying part-time at university in my second act has been an unexpectedly enlightening experience – not just because of the course work itself, but the fear I had to overcome. While at 52 one doesn’t really care what the kids think, being the oldest student in the room takes some courage. You become a COW (Conscientious Older Woman), a cruel moniker attributed to us keen, mature female students sitting at the front. We sit there ostensibly to ensure we can read the whiteboard, but we also want our money’s worth out of each session. After all, I am paying cash — there’s no student loan or helpful parent to underwrite my efforts.


That aside, the biggest fear to get over was being a new migrant into a virtual world, neither fluent in the customs nor language but having to navigate online portals to learning. Now, two years in, just as I start to feel like I am fitting in with the digital natives, I find that online education has been shifting again, right under my nose. It seems ironic that while I am shouting at my son to “get off that bloody iPad” (regulation issue at high school), I am spending more time online trying to catch a wave that broke some time ago in the form of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. Globally, universities and other learning providers are increasingly offering MOOCs to those who want an introduction to a subject of interest, or a crash course in something to supplement other studies. You knew all this of course, I didn’t.


I had heard Frances Valintine, the much-awarded founder of both the Media Design School and The Mindlab by Unitec, talk about them last year. A recognised expert in the future of education, she explained that online education is the primary method through which new generations of people are, and will be increasingly, educated. This approach means learning will move from the classroom to the home, and the role of teacher morphs into one of facilitator. Hmm. “Facilitated learning driven at home” . . . that made sense.


Not only had I been taken with the online Khan Academy’s approach to teaching maths, but I had noticed my son seemed to know a whole lot of things he had gleaned not through books, but online. MOOCs education allows you to upskill in a particular area, without having to spend a Tuesday evening in a cold classroom in a badly-lit school. You learn in your own time, at your own place and the experience is enriched by a global homeroom. So a couple of days after my last uni exam (held in a sterile lecture theatre, with expensive car parking), I enrolled in my first MOOCs course – a four week romp through “Cultural Intelligence” (a topic for a later column).


Within just four hours a week, a whole new world has opened up to me, literally. With around 600 other students of all ages and from many different countries, I have learnt as much from the other participants as from the course material. And there’s another benefit. Initially, I was a little shy leaving comments on the course page after each session, but realised that I had to again literally get with the program. Now I’m joining in with global discussions, and because of the interplay with social media, I have some new Twitter followers, plus I’m playing on two new social media platforms I’d never even heard of last month.


It appears I am only beginning to understand this new world of possibility that lies within the computer. One of the principles of good leadership is to be a lifelong learner. In an era where change is happening faster than at any other time, if we want to keep in the game and not lose relevance, our need to upskill is far greater. So when I coincidentally bumped into tech-education guru Valintine just last week, I was keen to show off my new MOOCs know-how, so I didn’t appear a complete laggard. She was most encouraging, but then told me that there are literally tens of millions of MOOCs available in the world right now. Crikey, I must have been asleep! So it’s not a bad dream to realise we can indeed go to school in our pyjamas.


— Sandy Burgham


This post first appeared in The Hobson February, 2016


Interested in learning more about MOOCs? Sandy recommends checking out www.futurelearn.com or www.coursera.org