What online or blended learning is like

Two years ago (2018) Coram Deo ventured out into the online learning world. What a journey it was (still is). In 2019 we saw the graduation of the first online group in our Advanced Pastoral Narrative Counselling programme. Nelly was a student from that very first group. She writes how that process helped her find her voice (in Afrikaans, and an extract below).

Online learning can be exhilarating, daring, personal and offer a sense of community. This is not necessarily the standard experience and it goes along with significant considerations from an organisational perspective. Also for the learner there are many considerations.

Until recently when I thought how my life had started changing, I would not have ascribed it to an alternative narrative gaining momentum.

It is only since becoming familiar with narrative therapy and having conversations with Dr Elmo Pienaar about my introversion and regarding myself as the odd one out in the online blended learning group that I have started thinking maybe I could rewrite my future life story – and, of course, my story up to now. Elmo and the other Coram Deo lecturers shared narrative wisdom in countering my damaging beliefs.

Nelly shares part of a unique outcome of her experience online in which she stood up against the voice of Shyness and ‘Notbelongingness.’ We honour her for that.

Move over Nelly, know that you are free from the clutches of Shyness, Clumsiness, and Notbelongingness. Enter Intelligence and Calm and Balance. I know I have abilities I have never believed in. I am blessed with an unacknowledged skill or two … Sensing, Intuition, Patience … And, oh, the Joy and the Fun … My Sense of Humour makes life delightful. They are superb God-given gifts. [Nelly Roodt – excerpt from assignment submitted on 17/1/2019]

To establish a sense of community and safe space that calls forward unique outcomes, it poses a significant challenge centered on considerations around technology that would allow more personal engagement since online learning comes standard with perceptions about being impersonal. The impersonal perception was worrisome particularly since much of the feedback and referrals from past students come from students sharing the richness of their experience in local groups (read feedback here). The only way for us to bring a learning experience to people in some regions was through online learning. Either not do it because we get beautiful feedback or dare to start the process and see how we can adapt online to make it meaningful.

We had significant hurdles to overcome. Our subject matter is not the typical topic that can be presented traditionally in modernistic style presentation. We need people engaged and talking about their lives, their hopes, their learning as close to possible as if they were studying locally. Our lectures should have a very specific skill set in ideally both narrative and pastoral subject matter and during the second year, specialisation in a number of themes. By and large our students are adult learners who have not studied for some time. To them learning as such is a daunting prospect let alone technology, reading material on screen and more. Then also finances, in an organisation like ours, will not allow for costly hardware technology and fixed implementation.

Since then we started to tweak the process to allow for a model whereby some learners will have exposure to learning experiences that is both online and local. This presented a significant business challenge since as a non-profit we already work with significantly small margins. Furthermore at least in some cases lecturers needed to be willing to travel. The mission is however more important and we were resolute on finding ways to build communities – even small communities.

We decided that if online students were willing to step outside of their comfort zones we would find a way to also connect with them locally if they can get together a small number of people to join the journey. We then set our minimum numbers with which we can possibly roll out the programme in such a ‘blended learning approach’ (i.e., flipped classroom, online for continuation and quality assurance, and offline for building relationships on another level).

First off, we flipped the classroom. A flipped classroom entails that presenting the material is not the main consideration of the contact online. Students receive the material beforehand and it is imperative that they go through the material prior to online meetings. We know students don’t always get the time but the upside is that due to the nature of the subject and approaches to building online community, those students catch on quickly. Next time they become the resource for others missing a class. We have small pockets of communities across the country who themselves decide to meet up in coffee shops to further reflect on material or aspects they have missed. To add to the experience of a flipped classroom lecturers offer additional material or their more traditional notes or PowerPoint afterwards.

This story is far from over. Though we have lost some students (for diverse reasons) we know that others are immensely grateful. For those it was often the only way to learn about seeing the world through stories of people’s lives. There are also those who would have it no other way than to study online.

We will be updating this part the story of our organisation. This year we have groups online that are three times larger than our initial online intake. The online groups are now in some instances equivalent in numbers than some of our local groups.

It is clear to us that if we want to have an impact we have to dare leave our comfort zones. We have utmost respect for those who dare with us, and who ultimately become the change catalysts for the bigger dream of offering hope in local communities.

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