By Jim Shimabukuro
This is the sort of article that you read and reread with a shake of the head in between. In “Onsite and Online Learning: A Meaningful Distinction Any Longer?” (WCET, 12.7.11), Gary Brown and Trent Batson claim that “the debate between online and traditional courses is over.” After repeated readings, I still find myself nodding in agreement with the conclusion that “almost all” classes include online components but shaking my head at the logical leap that, therefore, the debate is over.
In fact, in the statement that “almost all educational experiences, no matter where they occur, are now online to some degree,” Brown and Batson make a case for omitting the qualifier “almost” since, for all practical purposes, the web is an unavoidable, ubiquitous presence in all our lives. Thus, even when courses appear to be completely traditional with required physical attendance and no onsite web technology, they are still directly or indirectly associated with online learning resources and personal communications such as email. In other words, all courses are blended to some degree even when the online dimensions may not be obvious.
The authors also reiterate some of the main arguments that defend the quality of online practices.
Considering my agreement with their premises, why do I end up questioning their conclusion that the debate is dead? The problem may be in our perceptions of space in the learning environment. Brown and Batson say that “all learning now has become untethered from a single locus” and that “the locus of learning is not bounded by brick or LMS.” They add that, “unlike the traditional versus online debate,” the distinction between tethered and untethered matters.
My point is that an untethered practice (e.g., eportfolios) in a tethered environment (traditional or blended classroom) effectively eliminates the space or anywhere advantage, which distinguishes completely online from blended approaches. That is, even if students are allowed to go online from outside the classroom, they are still required to report to the physical site at other times. In other words, they are not free from space restrictions. In completely online classes, students have no such space restrictions. They can be anywhere. And if we add the time advantage, they can also learn at any time.
This anywhere and anytime advantage changes the student and faculty populations as well as the range of practices in ways that blended approaches cannot match. Put another way, a class that is partially virtual is significantly different from one that is completely virtual. I’m not saying that one is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that they are different, like apples and oranges.
Thus, from my perspective, the traditional versus online and the tethered versus untethered debates both matter. Virtual practices such as eportfolios chained to brick and mortar locations, however long the chain, are still tethered. To accept that this doesn’t matter is to close the door on explorations of learning environments that impose no space or real-time restrictions.
We, educators, have yet to scratch the surface of the potential for completely virtual learning environments, and part of the reason is our reluctance to remove the chains that bind us to our brick and mortar buildings. Exclaiming that adopting virtual practices while remaining chained erases the distinctions between traditional and online is to close our eyes to the fact that the emperor has no clothes.
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