Can Online Education Work?

Can Online Education Work?  

We are discussing here the future of education on this planet. Here are a few notes about online learning that may be of interest. 

I know the faculty is generally dead-against it, but it is coming, maybe like a plague, maybe like salvation.'Tis a juggernaut. It is incumbent upon schools and colleges to make it work. Administrators think of dollars, faculty think of self-interest.  Compromise is needed. There is more. We face a contest between political interests, notably the teachers unions and the public good. We see a paradox within American education, where the conservatives are the liberals, and the liberals are the conservatives. 

Online education is here, and it is here to stay.  Many issues, particularly costs, mandate continuance of this new venue.  I'm for it, make no doubt.  But we must be at least a little critical.  So, we mention a few factors, mostly technical with the title, "What is wrong with online education?" 

Here are a few factors that speak against the purely online format, bare and un-enhanced.

1. Sociability. Students need to work together in a collective way, exploring new ideas, challenging or agreeing on premises, clarifying key or muddy points, reflecting with colleagues on the day's work, working with colleagues on assignments - not to cheat but to consider and enhance meaning. This is just like in my college days. Online learning creates or is sustained in a venue of isolation.

2. Multiple channels of learning.  The traditional lecture is not all that bad, though it has obvious defects.  Boring, or poor presentations, unsuitable class times and sizes are just a few.  One true values of the lecture is in the note-taking of students.  Why? Because note taking stimulates at least two channels of memory, writing (tactile) and hearing.  Also, and this is most important to some, there is the visual impact of the physical presence of the professor giving the lecture. This should be concatenated with actually "being there." Singularly, this has high learning value.  Online learning gives only a rather passive environment. 

3. Spatial.  The constant spatial location of the lecture gives a type of constancy of the learning.  When in the classroom, the student is tuned to the environment and learns partly in that context.  This is not to diminish independent learning outside the classroom, but is yet another factor to consider.  When someone learns at home or wherever, this essential factor is diminished. Spatial effects and even odor have been connected with permanence of memory.

While online learning can deliver content, we ask: Can it deliver the critical values students learn from the social, multiple channels of learning, and spatial effects so important to sustained memory and long term recollection? For online learning to be successful, it must address these points.  Are chat rooms enough? Are YouTube videos enough? We don't know anything beyond anecdotal examples.Can online learning be better? Will it be worse? We don't know. Research needs to be carried out on the "permanence of learning" in the new online world. We can solve these problems unless there is a de facto restriction on what can be proposed.

Politics and the Paradox.  A simple paradox on the political landscape is obvious even to the most casual observer.  It is that in this relatively new online educational venue conservatives are the liberals, while the liberals are the conservatives.  The sense of the paradox is that conservatives seem more willing to allow new venues of education, at best a failing institution and not getting better unless you believe in anecdotes, and unless you believe in funding more of them. (Note:  From Lee Shulman, past president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, we note The plurality of anecdotes does not equal evidence.)

On the other hand, the liberals, that move lock-step with the teacher unions, seek to sustain the status quo.  They wish to maintain the classroom as it has been for decades - despite massive information it is failing. As an American institution it is dying.  It has run its course.  It is a non-competitive institution favoring what is versus what can be.   Liberals are the conservatives in this mélange of mixed messages, misconceptions, and misinterpretations. 

We are talking about the education of the next generation - wherein resides the future of the United States. Is performing in the lower 50% of international achievement tests what we want? What we expect? What we need? Is it enough to sustain a terribly rich country in the decades ahead?  No, it is not.