Meme-ifying Online Advocacy

E-learning proponents at U. of Edinburgh take a novel approach to seeding new discussions around online education.

February 24, 2012

The case for online education is often made like many other cases in higher education: in dense research papers with plenty of caveats. To wit, perhaps the most-cited document by advocates of online learning is a 2009 meta-study by the U.S. Education Department, which concluded that online education is probably at least as good as the face-to-face kind.

That study has not appeared to have much pull with skeptical academic leaders and faculty. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, while student enrollments in online courses have increased 348 percent since 2003, the percentage of academic administrators who believe that learning outcomes in online courses are equal or superior to those of face-to-face courses has increased by only 10 percent during that time, from 57 to 67 percent. Those academic leaders estimate that even fewer of their faculty have changed their minds about online learning since early last decade.

Now four lecturers at the University of Edinburgh are trying a different advocacy tack -- one more suited to the viral culture of the modern Web.  

The Edinburgh lecturers, who teach in an e-learning master’s degree program at the university, have written a “Manifesto for Teaching Online” that looks less like a traditional academic paper than an exceptionally  wordy bumper sticker. It contains provocative assertions -- “Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit,”  “The best online courses are born digital,” “Place is differently, not less, important online” -- set against a black backdrop and punctuated by colorful asterisks.

The lead authors of the manifesto say these statements are not simple slogans but faithful abridgments of scientific research into online learning, often their own. The document, which is really more of an object (it can be downloaded and shared as a PDF, and the authors commissioned a student to create a video version), is designed as a more compact way of getting across some ideas that the Edinburgh lecturers feel are too often overlooked in public discourse about online education.

“The manifesto is intended as a different form of academic output than a traditional paper -- a different way of sharing ideas,” says Jen Ross, an associate lecturer at Edinburgh’s school of education. “It's necessarily a lot more interpretable.”

Their hope is that its simplicity and relative flair will turn those oft-overlooked ideas -- especially the notion that online education should be measured by its equivalency to traditional classroom education -- into memes that are easy to find, manipulate and pass along.

Ross and her colleagues -- associate lecturer Clara O’Shea and senior lecturers Hamish McLeod and Siân Bayne -- have put a Creative Commons license on the manifesto that permits strangers to remix and share it without worrying about copyright infringement. On their website, the lecturers have requested that users send them links to modified versions so that they can help spread those versions, too.

The idea is not to build political leverage in the interest of pushing a pro-online policy agenda, says Ross. It is not a petition, she says. It is more like a conversation-starter that aspires to be pithier than a paper and more viral than a wiki.

“What we'd really like to have happen with the manifesto is that people take it up and remix, rewrite and take it apart,” says Ross. “It emerged from debate and conversation amongst the four of us, and we don't expect it to completely resonate with anyone else -- we also wouldn't be surprised if it evolved over time even for us. It's provisionally stable, and we are proud of it, but we are 'holding it lightly.' ”

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Steve Kolowich

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