By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
Harry Keller wrote in ”Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’” that “persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.”
As I read Harry’s posts, I realized one thing that has always nagged at me about some of the discussions about online learning. As I have read some of the various discussions, I have felt that what I consider the human interaction factor is being ignored. As a student and as a teacher, I want to see, hear, feel, even smell the people I am interacting with. After reading Harry’s post, I realized that I am looking through the lens of an instructor who does not teach large lecture style courses, and that I teach courses which are more focused on process than content. I teach classes of 10-25 students and I am a skilled facilitator of these seminar-style classes with groups of students who want to be or are K-12 teachers, people who need to be able to interact effectively face-to-face with other human beings.
As a student and as a teacher, I want to see, hear, feel, even smell the people I am interacting with.
However, I can see where a content course with large numbers of students, such as Chemistry 101, would probably be taught more effectively in the online environment. I remember the few large lecture courses I took in college, and I did not perform well in many of them. I would fall asleep or totally zone out. I am sure I would have learned more from a well-designed online course.
However, there’s the rub. John Adsit (‘College for $99 a Month’ – A Step in the Right Direction) referred to schools which are developing high quality online courses. They hire educational theorists who understand how students learn. They hire technology teams to create interactive and engaging multimedia to teach critical concepts. They have project directors who see the whole project through to its conclusion, a process which may take most of a year. They create careful formative and summative assessment programs rarely seen in colleges. A single course costs many tens of thousands of dollars to create.
Unfortunately I don’t think many programs invest the time or money into this kind of design. I have taken online courses which I think were well-designed, and coupled with my self-discipline, I have learned from them, and enjoyed the interaction with other students. I have taken others online courses which were poorly-designed so that I felt more frustration than satisfaction with my learning.
I appreciate the discussion on this topic because I think it really highlights the complexity of the issues that we as modern educators face. I think if we lock ourselves into the idea there is only one modality or one way of delivery we are ignoring the flexibility and versatility that education, with and without technology, can offer.
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