Teaching and Learning: A Synthesis
February 08, 2021

Terry Critchley
Author of "Making It in IT"

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Learning and subject retention is a joint exercise between instructor and learner and how this might be achieved in an online, distance learning environment is outlined in this blog. Download the full paper here.

Without this synthesis, learning would be like doing the tango alone; everybody knows "it takes two to tango."

Traditional Teaching

We all have a mental picture of traditional teaching; the lecturer or school teacher holding forth on some subject to a passive audience who cannot or do not exchange ideas on that subject with their neighbors during class.

The collateral is often quite old and any new ideas need to be scribbled down, if there is time, and assimilated later along with reading that collateral. Asking questions of the instructor can elongate the class time, display one's ignorance or the answer confuses other students. This ability to ask questions at the time the particular sub-topic is covered is the main advantage this method has over online learning; the social interaction aspect is also pertinent.

Face to face tutorials and similar encounters are also useful in this environment but when it comes to scaling up this method, there are obvious flaws, especially in volatile subjects like information technology (IT).

Covid-19 Impact

The onrushing Covid-19 pandemic has made online learning, in whatever form can be achieved in a short time, mandatory across nearly all academic institutions. Much of this will persist although "seat of the pants" online training will need development to mimic face-to-face teaching as far as possible.

There is, today, a worldwide skills shortage in cybersecurity of about 3.5 m. positions and that topic is by no means the only skill needed in modern workplace IT, despite being flavor of the month, along with AI.

In short, and in the IT ecosphere, volume and volatility are the enemies of traditional teaching; this has given rise to more online learning.

Computer Aided Learning

Online learning is not new, and computer based training has been around for decades but relatively neglected.

Learning online and at a distance from the educational source has the disadvantage that it generates "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner" syndrome. The absence of interaction with others or learning diversions can be detrimental to absorbing and retaining knowledge.

In theory, there is no instructor involved, except in spirit in the material presented, and no interaction with one's peers. That presence needs to be woven into the online material somehow, as discussed in the next section.

The Online Learning Needs

The need then is to simulate the face-to-face environment as closely as possible in the online/distance arena. These are the areas I feel need bolstering to lift this form of learning above the "read page after page"then tackle some review questions technique. Apart from the obvious quality and relevance of the material needed, a modern online course should:

■ Have standard user interface (UI) at least in the same organization or course vendor. Some global guidelines may be more acceptable than a compulsory UI in the first instance

■ Have a flow reflecting IT as a whole and not be just a series of topics without any obvious synergy. Many course are just that.

■ Be modular with the ability to stop at any point and restart there. In addition, it should allow students to skip sections which are patently not in their list of needs.

■ Emulate the campus feeling and the world of FAQs, it should be possible to use the course as a forum where peers can exchange ideas, memory tips, give pointers to other material and so on. In short, create a Zoom/Skype sub-environment.

■ Have a self-test facility with guided support in a Q & A session for the student, perhaps generating a question for peers if the topic refuses to stick in the student's mind.

■ Give the feeling to the student that this course is not the end of learning, but emphasizes that, like breathing, it is a lifetime occupation.

■ This emphasis might point the student to journals or sites where up to date articles and other supplementary information can be acquired.

■ Have optional course exit/re-entry points, taking the student to an external medium, such as an internet article, YouTube video etc. to broaden the learner's perspective.

■ If multiple course developers are involved, their styles should conform to some standard, otherwise student confusion can arise.

■ Have the material QA (quality assured) by experienced IT people for consistency, accuracy and adequate topic coverage.

■ Eventually the course will need to be overhauled but that is common problem.

Learner Notes

I have learned several things during my long sojourn in IT, including some gems from other people:

1. IT careers (as opposed to a single job) needs a lifelong commitment to learning your trade and passing what you know on to others.

2. Learning and retaining knowledge is best achieved by studying on the (my) LOVE principle; little, often varied and extensive. I also call this "osmotic learning," osmosis being the gradual seeping of moisture into a substance; the LOVE form of learning mimics this. Perhaps with a joke or revelation to bring them back to attentiveness.

3. Organize your study; don't just go through all the material in haphazard fashion as you will lose the ethos of your overall subject.

4. Remember that the half-life of an IT job or position is about 24 months after which it will mutate, change radically or, in some cases, disappear. You should train for a career, not a job.

Summary

IT training is changing, due to the complexity of IT, its volatility and the changing computing requirements in the workplace. Volatile material and audiences of thousands mandates online training.

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts"
– US baseball coach

Dr. Terry Critchley is an IT consultant and author who previously worked for IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems
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