For the online learning world


The numbers game


Does the educator / student ratio matter? Can a machine educate? Are we better educators with the learning tools we now have? These questions are all related to numbers of different metrics and in this post I want to make you think about their possible answers.


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The numbers game

Moodle like any other virtual learning environment or remote communication device allows us to communicate with each other over distances beyond our physical limitations. This can be seen as a good thing as we have contact with a far greater range and variety of other humans. But it also has a downside, the detached element, where you’re separated and there is a reduction in the amount of communicated information, like smell.

By having a tool like Moodle that allows both synchronous and asynchronous communication this provides flexibility in terms of when we wish to communicate with each other in a learning environment. Often perhaps by chance that it synchronous communication happens because of our individual choice of when we want to learn and participate in a course or subject. I believe that Moodle has its most benefit as a secondary learning medium after the physical classroom environment or when geography prevents this. It facilitates the extension of learning time and provides a means of learning when previously none could occur.

By having this tool, educators can educate a far greater number of students than they could otherwise both geographically and time-wise. The later facilitating the breakdown of the time-zone problem. But, this must come at a cost. At what point in the quantity of students do we consider that we are becoming detached? When do educators or students consider that they are not actually communicating with a human but with a machine? If the feeling is more machine then do we lose something? Do we lose that element of true guidance that educators provide in learning?

Education perhaps is not about knowing facts off by heart but the skill in interpreting information to become knowledge. I see the purpose of an educator as a person who guides someone along the learning path so that they don’t spend huge amounts of wasted time traveling down the wrong way. They also provide filtered information from the available haystack that is the subject area in order to maintain focus. I’m not saying that every educator is always correct and you should always challenge and question your educators. As that is how we all learn and evolve. So, the question is, can a machine be a true educator? If so then we don’t need to worry about the student / educator ratio on a Moodle course. But if a machine cannot replace a true human educator that educates humans then the student / educator ratio becomes important.

As humans we are bound by the laws of nature that only facilitate a certain amount of time that we can dedicate to a given task before we have to go and perform some sort of maintenance task like eating or sleeping. We also have a cognitive limitation of the amount of things we can process at any one time. That puts a constraint on the quantity of students we can educate at any one time. When the quantity becomes too great then that is the point when students can become detached and disengaged in the learning process because they don’t have a sufficient quantity of guidance that gives purpose and direction to their learning. They make too many mistakes and that has a negative effect rather than the positive effect of a few mistakes and learning from them.

Therefore we have two elements here:

  1. The ability for a machine to educate in the absence of a human.
  2. The capability of a human to educate a given quantity of other humans.

When working remotely as Moodle facilitates this I consider does reduce the quantity of simultaneous students that can be taught at any one time due to the reduction in communication quantity and speed, due to the limitations of the ‘QWERTY’ keyboard etc. Web conferencing could however improve things.

There is something else to consider though. If a human on a Moodle course can provide sufficient engagement to a point when students are engaged then what percentage of that is it in relation to the overall? Can a machine help a human to keep more humans engaged than they otherwise would be? If so then perhaps all of the effort we put into learning technologies is worth it.

One thing that I’ve wondered about for a while is the question: If a machine can help with the tedious and repetitive elements of educating, then does that help the educator to be a better teacher if their focus is more upon the skills that they enjoy, excel at and motivate them? If so then educating with a learning environment in an assisting role is better than without.

In conclusion, numbers matter, even if they are processed by a machine.

And finally:

As I sit here, a little cold as the snow starts to melt outside I wonder if learning can take place on ‘snow days’? Could educators set work for when students of all ages were prevented from traveling to their place of education? A connected world does not become disconnected just because it’s cold.

Gareth Barnard
Latest posts by Gareth Barnard (see all)

Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

2 thoughts on “The numbers game

  • Thought provoking post Gareth!
    I often wonder how much of what I teach is ‘templated’ in a way – often repeating the same or similar things each month, with different groups of online learners.
    So could this be automated via a robot or AI?
    I’m not sure.
    I’m not are I should be thinking about it from the teacher perspective anyway … it’s the learner that is most important – and they don’t know, or even care, that I made almost an identical post last month with a different groups of learners do they? 😉

    • Interesting situation Stuart. I think that even though the answers could be ‘templated’ they are subtly different each time, because you said ‘almost’ and thus tailored to the individual. Whereby if they were AI based then this would show even on a sub-conscious level. Therefore there is a connection of a caring human as against a cold calculating machine. And this helps the learning process.

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