My blog this week is about a messy question. Research has not found the answer, and every new article seems to present an opposing view. The question (“Does online learning work?”) is not just messy. It is a fake question.
Why? Because students are not a collective blob to which a nice neat answer will stick. We may as well ask if a tennis racket works. For tennis players it does, though it works best for those who know how to use it and are willing to work hard to improve. But the tool will not make you Venus Williams or even teach you to play rudimentary tennis.
Similarly, the general consensus in online learning seems to be that currently it best serves self-directed students, while struggling students need more support, possibly through hybrid models that include the advantages of face-to-face communication.
In short, focusing on this question alone keeps us stuck in a back and forth discussion that isn't actually helpful, skimming over the complexity and nuance that students need us to explore.
What questions are more productive?
While the research should continue, I say we should focus on more interesting questions. Here are some that are rattling around in my summer-addled brain right now. Feel free to add your own.
- When was the last time you had an email or text misunderstanding that could have been avoided if you’d been conversing in person? What does that mean for online teaching? If teaching depends on effective communication, what strategies can compensate for the lack of verbal and other cues that convey meaning through dialogue?
- I heard once that students will learn far more from who we are as teachers than from the assignments we give. In my own toughest subjects in school, my best teachers conveyed such a passion for their subject areas that I wanted to see what they saw. In college I was assigned the task of reading every word of Homer’s Iliad. “Snoozefest!” I thought, and skimmed the assignment until I could muster a few passable responses. When the teacher raved about the richness of the language in class, she became so excited she slipped into citing passages from memory. She was so joyful about the dense text that I had to go back and re-read the assignment. If it was that amazing, I didn’t want to miss it!
In an online course, what are the best ways to convey that love for our subject areas? Can Skype-ing students in the eye replace looking students in the eye? How will I read vulnerability or misunderstanding there when I am so accustomed to doing that in face-to-face instruction? How can we best serve students who signed up not becuase they need the more flexible schedule--such as students with children or inflexible work schedules--but because it sounded less rigorous or intimidating?
- When students still need social, collaborative, communication skills, how can we foster those skills online or through an online/face-to-face hybrid?
- In online discussions, how can we counter the “Facebook effect,” in which students project a pre-meditated, constructed self online, in favor of bringing out students' authentic selves so that meaningful learning can occur? This is also critical in preventing plagiarism, which can be easier to do online.
- If “Aha” moments are born of spontaneity, tangents, redirections, and laughter that disarms students in the face of challenging subject areas, how do we facilitate online spaces that will create the aha moments that deliver the powerful punch of joy in learning?
- Are there particular student needs or life circumstances that are best served through online learning? If so, and if online learning options can make a subject more difficult for struggling students, should there be GPA requirements or pre-requisites before students can take a certain course online?
- How can teachers take full advantage of the increased opportunity in online learning for individualized instruction--without losing opportunities for collaboration and team building skills? For example, it takes time and intention to embed effective peer review routines in the classroom and writing process. When I consider the misunderstandings that occur when students cannot use tone or non-verbal cues while delivering constructive criticism, my head spins. An online course will require much more discussion and intention to ensure effective peer review.
I don’t think it is smart to dismiss online education unless you have tried it and wrestled considerably with all the questions it raises. And as new as online education is, just because one virtual school isn’t getting it right the first time does not mean it “doesn’t work.”
We should pursue the possibilities in online learning—not because online learning is "better than" the brick-and-mortar school or because brick-and-mortar is superior to online options. But because online learning can make it easier for many to attain higher levels of education, that is enough to move forward.
If you have experienced online learning, what are your most creative answers to these questions? What other questions do you wrestle with that I have missed? What answers have you found so far? Whether you are working through these questions as a teacher or a student, I would love to hear from you!
Resources, Education Week:
Please post your thoughts in my discussion,
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Kaitlin Murphy ( www.kaitlinmurphy.org) has worked in education for 16 years, primarily as a middle and high school teacher, but also as a college writing instructor, a teacher at an incarceration facility, a GED program for teen mothers, a town community school and currently at a community college in New Jersey. She worked at the DC Public Schools for three years as a writer and is a freelance writer, writing coach and communications consultant.
Other blogs by this author: