Can we learn online?
Updated on 07 September 2022
Somehow, online learning re-appears in the global media every summer. Last year, there was a lot of excitement about Udacity, an MIT initiative. The year before, it was Peer-to-Peer University. Do newspapers opt for online learning in the absence of other content (this was before the London Olympics)?
In July, the New York Times published two articles with opposing views about online learning. The first one, ‘Universities Reshaping Education on the Web’, announces a revolution in university education in the form of the Coursera online learning initiative. The second article – ‘The Trouble with Online Education’ – questions the very possibility of learning anything online. These two articles are indicative of the confusion that exists in the current discussion on online learning.
The first article (hype) sounds like a business promotion for Coursera, a new startup from Silicon Valley, which delivers online courses in cooperation with leading universities, including MIT and Harvard. When it comes to methodology, the article does not provide any strong argument that massive online learning can work. The article cites huge numbers (40.000 students have downloaded one professor’s videos) and future-oriented rhetoric (change the way we learn). In order to experience it directly, Diplo’s educational director, Hannah Slavik, attended one course to get a first-hand impression of what can and what cannot be taught in this way. Paradoxically, based on Hannah’s experience, Coursera courses are better than they appear in the NYT article. Yet, like all massive online learning, it can work for motivated people with good time management (still a minority in the world). The interaction, which is the key for effective online learning, is weak. For a more comprehensive evaluation see Hannah’s blog post.
The second article (skepticism) was written by Professor Mark Edmundson, who is obviously annoyed by the Coursera hype. He raises some very valid issues, including the social nature of learning, and the need for trust in the learning process. Effective teaching requires dialogue, not monologue, which he associates with online broadcasting learning models such as Coursera. He provides powerful arguments for the importance of social and emotional context for learning. After carefully analyzing what is needed for a successful learning experience, his arguments fall short by saying that such an experience cannot be created online.
Our experience, at DiploFoundation, from more than 15 years of online teaching, shows the opposite to be true. One can create the environment of trust and community necessary for online learning, by having a small groups of maximum 25 students. The process has to be carefully nurtured, sometimes moving more into coaching than teaching. Our experience from Diplo online learning shows that a surprisingly high level of bonding can be established in an online classroom. As in traditional classrooms, online learning requires time, interest and passion. On the learning path – online or traditional – there are no shortcuts. There are no online substitutes for empathy and social bonding which, very often, make or break our learning experience.
Have you experienced any online learning? Did it work for you? Do you think it can be achieved in a classroom of a thousand people?