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A ‘tsunami’ in online education: will we need to reconstruct teaching and learning in the wake?

Published on 15 May 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Today I read an interesting article by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, on online education. In the article he predicts as ‘tsunami’ in online education, as more and more top American universities invest in developing and offering online programmes and courses.

Online learning is entering a mature phase after 20 years of interplay between hype and disillusionment. At Diplo, we started our first online course in 1996 and since then have maintained our approach of small classes where students interact intensively and receive individual attention from faculty members.

Our experience over the last 15 years makes me cautious about the potential of broadcast teaching (which seems to be what Brooks has in mind), where courses may involve thousands of students. A good TED talk, or a lecture from a great professor can inspire us; however real online learning requires much more, including a carefully planned and paced learning process. It includes nurturing peer-interaction, creating the space for trust among students and faculty, facilitating discussion, and helping students to discover and explore on their own. All of it – in the classroom or online – is part of a ‘constructivist’ learning approach which puts the student at the centre of learning.

Brooks poses several highly relevant questions, which I would like to comment on – and I hope others will join.

Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience?
Not necessarily. Online learning is often combined effectively with classroom learning – we don’t have to choose one or the other. We may see some new opportunities. For example, since the time factor is becoming more critical than space in our daily routines, we can expect an increased following of online courses even by people who are physically present on university campuses. They might follow classes they missed online, or classes that were delivered simultaneously with their other physical commitments.

Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalise subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy?
Determining what can be taught effectively online requires some experimentation. For example, we thought that negotiation could not be taught online. Negotiation is one of the most human-intensive activities with high importance placed on emotions, body language and non-verbal communication. However, our experimental online teaching of negotiations was very successful. We realised that we can teach procedural aspects of diplomatic negotiations (chairing, keeping dynamics) even better online, because students are not distracted by the ‘noise’ of human interaction.

Will fast online browsing replace deep learning?
There is a real risk that students will approach online classrooms in the same way that they browse the Internet (usually multitasking, reading diagonally, with many windows open). It is real challenge because a similar online environment may evoke our already developed online habits. We have tried to avoid this risk through creating a special learning environment. Students log into the classroom, which has to be comfortable and user-friendly, but different from general browsing. The environment has to help students shift from browsing mode to learning mode. The only way to make this experience special for students is to develop social dynamics. Personal attention is important. Peer-to-peer interaction must be encouraged. A lot of faculty time is needed, alongside skills for facilitation in an online learning environment. The more the lecturer provides in terms of attention, empathy, and time, the more it is returned from the students. There are no technological shortcuts.

If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?
An excellent lecture delivered via an online link is not sufficient for learning. It can inspire listeners and pass on some information and insights, but learning is a much longer and more complex process. It has to be properly planned, with effective facilitation at each stage. It requires a lot of interaction and support by faculty. Faculty should not be worried about their jobs. We will definitely need as many faculty members as in traditional learning, if not more.

Will academic standards be as rigorous?
In a properly designed and delivered online course, evaluation is built into the learning process. As in any good learning experience, students have to perform over an extended time period. Final exams are a minor part in the evaluation process – although they may be somewhat different in nature, as the medium calls for open book exams, where memorisation is less important. One possible analogy is between learning and democracy. Exams could parallel elections. But, as we know, for a proper democratic system you need an active civil society, free media, a democratic culture, and many other elements. Another element that helps maintain academic standards is the fact that much more of the learning process and interaction is logged and can be audited by university authorities. This is more difficult in traditional classrooms.

How much communication is lost – gestures, mood, eye contact – when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?
Nothing can replace direct human contact and interaction. However, we are sometimes surprised at the high level of bonding established in our online classroom. It is a rather different dynamic which needs to be researched. But, it definitely involves emotions and the same passion for teaching and learning.

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