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South African Journal of Higher Education

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A small experiment in online learning

P Ryan

Abstract




What constitutes successful practice for supervision of postgraduate students at an Open and Distance learning institution? In this article I describe a limited experiment in online teaching using a group of postgraduate students at the University of South Africa
(Unisa). While the experiment has obvious limitations including the short time in which it
has been running, the small size of the group and the experience of only one facilitator,
it may have large ramifications in terms of potential online learning opportunities in the
near future. The aim of this article is to indicate the relative importance of technology
itself in relation to student interaction online, as is suggested by Brand (1997): ‘Evaluating
the role of technology itself on learning has merit, but technology does not operate
independently to create a learning environment. Student interaction online, like student
interaction in face-to-face classrooms, is a critical component of the learning context.'
I hope to show that crucial moments in communication, interaction, reaction and nonreaction
amongst the six students, myself and observers, have significant consequences
for online teaching and learning amongst larger groups of students.
As increasing numbers of college-level courses are developed for delivery via the
World Wide Web, pressure grows to identify components of online learning environments
that contribute to or support learning. Much of the research focus in online education
has been on technical characteristics such as platforms, download speed, engaging
links, streaming audio and streaming video. Evaluating the role of technology itself
on learning has merit, but technology does not operate independently to create a
learning environment. Student interaction online, like student interaction in face-to-face
classrooms, is a critical component of the learning context. This appears to be especially
true for one of the largest groups served by online classes, non-traditional or adult
students, whose expectations are likely to include dynamic interaction with others and
learning constructed through discussion (Brandt 1997).

South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 22 (4) 2008: pp. 877-888



http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/sajhe.v22i4.25822
AJOL African Journals Online