2.3 Understanding the learners
Registered learners on open online courses are defined as ‘learners’ and not ‘students’. They will have a huge variety of reasons for studying. Some will be trying out learning to see if they want to embark on further study, while others will use the course to continue or supplement their study; some will have an academic background, whereas others will have no experience of higher education. They will be based all over the UK – and, possibly, all over the world – and English may not be their first language. These starting points are helpful to bear in mind as you engage with learners.
As well as being spaces for learning, forums and discussions are also social spaces. The learners enrolled on this course will be from a diverse background both culturally and educationally. This diverse mix adds to the wealth of experience and discussion that will take place during the conversation and in the presentation of their work.
You need to be aware that assumptions and misinterpretations can be a particular issue in an online environment devoid of visual and non-verbal clues, such as approving smiles and nods. Such misinterpretations can be made as much about the people posting messages as they can about the messages they post. As such, it is important not to jump to conclusions about what people mean or understand, or about the type of person they are.
This does not mean that you will not make judgements about people or what they write. As part of your role as an affiliated guide to support the course facilitators, you will need to assess whether the messages being posted are appropriate to the nature and population of the audience, and when an issue needs to be flagged up.
In order to do this you need to understand how such assumptions and misinterpretations might be avoided. Work in the field of anthropology (Hogan-Garcia, 2003) suggests that there are a number of competencies or skills that are helpful in overcoming perceived assumptions based on racial, cultural, educational or social background.
These cultural competencies are:
- Be non-judgemental/withhold judgement
- Be flexible
- Be resourceful
- Personalise observations
- Pay attention to thoughts and feelings
- Listen carefully
- Observe attentively
- Assume complexity
- Tolerate the stress of uncertainty
- Have patience
- Manage personal bias and stereotypes
- Keep a sense of humour
- Show respect
- Show empathy.