Online Blogucation
9Aug/120

What the Olympics can teach us about online learning…

In just a few days, the 2012 Olympic Games in London will come to a close. It makes me sad. I look forward to the winter or summer games every two years. There's something about athletes not competing for money but simply for the pride of their nations and the world that gets me right here. (You can't see me, but I'm pointing to my heart.) I also find it heartwarming to watch the closing ceremonies, when the athletes put national differences aside and all march into the stadium in one large group.

But, never fear, online learning is here! Maybe not as exciting as the Olympics, but still, it can be a lot of fun. And, really, there is a lot we can learn from the Olympics. Here are a few analogies to consider:

Something for everyone: I’ve met a few folks over the years who say they just don’t like the Olympics, or sports in general. And that’s okay; just like online learning, they’re not for everyone. But, I think an overwhelming majority can find something about the Olympic Games (summer or winter) that they like. Whether it’s the raw athleticism of the track and field events, the grace of the gymnastics, or the death-defying speeds of downhill skiing, there are plenty of “big” events. A lot of people love the odd anticipation and strategy that goes into curling. And, hey, who could forget those rousing tug-of-war matches from the 1900 to 1920 games? Or a great, competitive round of roque?

  • Online learning provides learners with opportunities to learn from a vast array of knowledge and experiences. Consider whether you, as an instructor, tie most learning to a textbook. That’s okay, but what else could you do to reach students, to make sure that there’s something for everyone? Remember that there myriad tools available online that can be easily incorporated into an online course to enhance learning experiences. Spend a few minutes checking out the resources from MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Teaching Online), to give just one example.

There is still a role for the experts: There are lots of reasons why we, the human race, enjoy the Olympics. I’ve named a few above. But probably one of the most fascinating reasons we tune in to various events is because we want to see who is the best of the best. Who is the “fastest woman in the world”? The dead-on accuracy in the archery and shooting events is captivating. The patience, strategy, and then the excitement of every soccer shot on goal brings thousands to their feet. (Maybe millions, if you include us nuts who jump up and start shouting at our televisions.)

  • There is a lot of automation in online learning. Scheduling assignments to be available only at certain times, embedding lectures or videos as teaching tools, and of course, autograding quizzes and tests. It is enough that some instructors have wanted to do their own 200-meter dash in the opposite direction of every online learning opportunity. “I don’t want some computer teaching my students for me!” they say. But worry not, my friends! If people only wanted to see how silicon chips could perform, we’d have nothing but robots in the Olympics. As I said, people want to see who is the best, and they do this largely because they want to know what is the pinnacle of the human spirit. I don’t think it’s really any different in teaching. While few of us may ever make some international equivalent of 10-meter platform diving gold medal, we still want to learn from those around us who are doing great things in our fields. We read (and contribute to!) academic journals. We attend conferences to listen to great presenters. We watch the TED Talks videos just to see what neat ideas and strategies are coming to all us educators.

Everyone still needs to do their own work: There have been a number of accusations of cheating at the Olympics over the years. If you follow the games regularly, you probably remember the 2002 hullaballoo in pairs figure skating when a French judge allegedly admitted to the chair of the International Skating Union (ISU) that she had been pressured by the head of the French skating program to show favoritism to Russian skaters Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze over Canadian pair Salé and Pelletier in the finals. Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze took the gold despite a flawed final performance, while Salé and Pelletier originally took the silver. Due to the scandal, Salé and Pelletier were later awarded the gold and Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze kept their gold. And over the years, there have been many accusations of doping, the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and even hopping up on ephedrine (the main ingredient in many decongestants), which gives people an adrenaline-like boost.

  • The fact of the matter is that winning-at-any-cost has become, for many people, the goal of their entire engagement in anything. Whether in sports or in online learning, we should be focused on what we can do and what we can learn, to the best of our abilities. There is so much societal pressure to win, that many students have lost sight of the point of the exercise: to become better. There is a sad truth as well: there will always be people who will (try to) cheat. The challenge for us, as instructors, is both to find ways to identify and stop the cheating and to be creative in how we assess “success” so that traditional cheating methods (paper mills, having another student take your own exam, etc.) just don’t matter anymore. Many Olympic sports have had marred reputations over the years due to one scandal or another; but the outcome is not to just throw in the proverbial towel. Instead, they carry on, finding new ways to identify cheating and new methods in those subjectively judged sports to standardize measures of success. Again, it’ll never be perfect; but at least we can keep striving for perfection rather than simply giving up on the whole thing. In online learning, it’s the same.

These are just a few comparisons I’ve noticed. Do you have other observations or ideas along these lines? Feel free to post them in the comments section.

Oh, and one more analogy: Costas is still king. Well, that’s not really an analogy of anything. He is just king.

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
Academic Training & Consulting Manager
Pearson eCollege

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