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In defense of online learning (and veggie burgers)

By Michael Feldstein / December 2001

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As I read Joseph Konstan's thought-provoking column about how he, a professor of computer science, avoids online learning technologies, I found my thoughts turning to the ontology of veggie burgers. There are two kinds of veggie burgers: the kind that try to taste like meat and the kind that don't. It's been my experience that meat-wannabe veggie burgers (and, in fact, faux meat in general) tend to be disappointing. At their very best, the most one can say about them is, "Hmm...that tasted almost as good as a hamburger." More often, they are just plain awful. No, the superior veggie burger, in my humble opinion, is the one that acknowledges the usefulness of the burger patty form factor while making no attempt to taste like anything other than itself. In other words, the veggie burger comes into its own as a culinary art form when we acknowledge that it is not and will never be a hamburger.

What holds for vegetable patties also holds for online learning. If e-learning is ever to come into its own as an educational art form (and I don't think it has yet), then we must first acknowledge that it is not and never will be able to replicate the kind of dynamic that happens in a live classroom. After all, the richness that comes with face-to-face communication is a product of millions of years of evolution. Short of developing a Star Trek holo-deck, I very much doubt that we will be able to truly capture the body language, the facial expressions, and the holistic experience of being in a classroom together. So if replicating the classroom experience is the standard we set for distance learning success, then I'm afraid we may need to wait another century or two for distance learning to come of age.

No, if we want distance learning to mature in our lifetime, we can't think of it as a synthetic version of the classroom we have all grown up with. Instead, we have to envision a new pedagogy—one that plays to the strengths of distance learning technologies. I don't pretend to have that new pedagogy in my back pocket, but I do think there are a few obvious strengths of distance learning that might provide good starting points:

  • The ability to demolish all classroom walls. Good classroom teachers know how to control their environment to encourage educational conversation among the students. For example, Dr. Konstan describes his method for group work at length in his column. We will never be able to replicate this kind of control in a distance learning environment, in part because we have little or no control over the rooms in which the students sit. No fancy technology will change the fact that, for example, a parent taking a course from home can be interrupted mid-class by their child, or that a person taking a course at work could be interrupted by a co-worker or employer. It's also true that it is far easier for classmates to work in groups in a face-to-face environment. But the flipside of this is that, rather than bringing the students to a separate campus and putting them in classroom that is largely isolated from their daily experiences, we can reach the students where they are (in both the physical and the metaphysical sense) and become a relevant part of their world. So instead of trying to find ways to turn the students' attention into the class as effectively as we can in a non-virtual classroom, we should be looking for ways to turn their attention outward and to see their own worlds with new eyes.
  • The ability to travel through time. In a live classroom, we can take advantage of the immediacy of the moment. We can create drama and suspense by posing a problem and unfolding the solution in real time, right before the eyes of the students. And to a certain extent, you can accomplish the same thing with synchronous online learning technologies, although they are not quite the same as being there. But one advantage of e-learning in general and asynchronous e-learning in particular is that you can give the students the power to free themselves from the shackles of time. If the teacher asks a question, they can pause, deliberate, go out and forget about it for a while, come back, and answer the question when they are ready to do so. If they missed a particular point in a lesson, they can play it back again. If they entered a class (or other educational community) midstream, they can go back to the moment it started and get to know all the participants in almost the same way that the people who were there at the beginning could. As teachers, we can learn to take advantage of this new ability.
  • The ability to adapt tests and exercises to individual students. Dr. Konstan rightfully complains about the limitations of online testing tools. It's true that multiple choice, which is by far the easiest way to get a computer to understand a human's input in a testing environment can be limiting (although nothing prevents a distance learning teacher from requiring students to submit a human-graded essay via email). But the flip side is that we can develop tests and exercises that adapt to the students' needs in real time each time the student answers a question. That's just not practical to do in most live classroom situations. We should think about ways in which we can use this new capability to tailor education to the individual needs of the students.

Making this transition to the new environment can be particularly hard for the people who are gifted classroom teachers, because they have developed strong instincts about crafting lessons that they must now (at least partly) unlearn. But it is precisely those people—the passionate evangelists of the classroom like Dr. Konstan--who have the talent to see a new way of doing things. After all, while the classroom may be radically different in a virtual class, the human beings are exactly the same. We need good instincts about how people learn in general in order to figure out how they can learn in this new environment. Once we, the educators, have developed a vision of how we can be effective teachers in our virtual classrooms, then we can demand better supporting technology and have a reasonable hope of getting something that satisfies us. Until then, our students are going to be forced to swallow a lot of very bad veggie burgers. The burden to make the change happen is on the chefs, not on the manufacturers of the stoves.


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