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Is it live or is it Memorex?

By Lisa Neal, Saul Carliner / September 2005

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One of the most touted benefits of synchronous learning technologies is the convenience of joining a "live" online session regardless of where participants are located. That a session can be archived for replay is stated as another distinct advantage of these technologies. Recorded seminars are now hyped as if they deliver the same experience as the live sessions---or, in some cases better, since they can be viewed at any time.

While live sessions may be viewed as less convenient, we believe they deliver significant benefits not found in recorded sessions.

Live sessions are compelling in three ways. First is that a live speaker is far more engaging---the inevitable "ums," "ahs," and pauses notwithstanding. A recorded session can be edited to remove flaws, but a live session offers authenticity. Second is that other people have joined the session and generally participants can see who else is there. Finally, participants can interact with the presenter and with each other. Even though many people don't avail themselves of this opportunity, the fact that the possibility exists shapes the learning experience.

Authenticity, presence, and interaction are not often touted as pedagogically necessary for learning and retention. However, with technology-mediated learning, these attributes, individually or collectively, often make the difference between a learner who is engaged and one who is half-listening while doing something else.

Visiting a museum to see original artwork is less convenient than viewing a reproduction, but the experience of being in a gallery with others viewing an authentic work of art is compelling and memorable in its own way. A play or concert may be improvised or flawed in contrast to a movie or audio recording, but the authenticity can make these uniquely potent experiences stay with an audience for years. A textbook can impart clear and concise wisdom, but the lack of engagement is what drives people to take courses with professors who can discuss and illuminate course readings.

This reminds us of the old advertisement for audio tape which asked: Is it live or is it Memorex? As regards online learning, it doesn't really matter whether Ella Fitzgerald's recorded voice can break a glass like the real thing. What is important are the conditions under which people learn best and retain the most.


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