Online education and the quality of learning: a (long-winded) personal response

As threatened, I want to give a more personal answer to the question one of my readers posed on this blog. He or she wrote:

“I know how difficult the question is to address, but can you compare the quality of learning experienced by your ‘regular’ students versus those who take an online course? In my mind, everything else is secondary.”

Good question — and yes, I can try. Let me warn blog readers that this is going to be a long-winded, multi-part answer, since I want to be as comprehensive, and as honest, as I can.

I got into the online education business quite indirectly. When I left full-time teaching to move to Palo Alto with my husband (who had taken a job at Stanford University), my principal encouraged me to stay involved with the school and especially to help the (talented and dedicated) successor whom I’d helped recruit. Using my lecture notes, which were written up in powerpoint form (though I almost never showed them as powerpoints in class, I “podcast”, or video-recorded, my government and economics lectures. I hoped these presentations would help the new teacher prepare his lessons; it’s tough to teach any subject for the first time. Rather to my surprise, however, several students (mostly students whom I’d taught in previous AP classes) asked how they could download these lectures onto their ipods. Ipods? I was flabbergasted. I never expected to be sharing byte space with Taylor Swift.

Were these lectures more educationally effective delivered over the internet or an ipod than in person? I hope not. A “live” classroom audience sends back all kinds of signals: Hey, that caught my attention! . . . Is it lunchtime yet? . . . Booooring . . . That almost sounded like a joke, Mrs. M.” I missed that verbal and body language feedback when I was podcasting. On the other hand, I re-recorded several of these lectures until I got them right. My classroom technology did not include a rewind button. Students who found themselves confused — or found their minds drifting — could go back and re-watch or re-listen to a segment. I remember going over and over some economics problem sets, trolling for the third of my class or so that still didn’t grasp a concept. To the students who had already caught on, this reboot was a colossal waste of time.

I’m still just at the beginning of my online teaching adventures. (Sorry about that; I warned that I was going to be long-winded.) But let me end this introduction with one obvious objection to podcast lectures, and one perhaps less obvious counter-argument.

Even two years later, when I was offering a course that students took almost entirely online, I couldn’t guarantee that students watched/listened to my lectures. Sure, technology permits teachers to determine whether students click on content . . . but that hardly guarantees that they sit glued to their screens. It’s a lot easier to ensure that a student’s warm body is planted in a seat in front of me as I expound.

But is it really that much easier to ensure that a student is learning just because he or she is sitting in a classroom? My own experience and a raft of scientific studies suggest that most teenagers are far more alert and receptive to new ideas at 10 p.m. than they are at 8 a.m. Most students are likewise reluctant to raise their hands and say, “that went by way too fast, Mrs. McConnell. I didn’t get what you said.”

And leaving aside the question of whether or not my own lectures are interesting — former students, feel free to leave snarky comments — we all know that some teachers deliver material in a livelier and more interesting manner than others. Moreover, years of experience can — should – hone a teacher’s understanding of how to present difficult material in a manner that students can grasp. Why not tap into some of that expertise by recording these teachers?

I actually think that podcasts are one of the less effective tools of online learning, or at least offer less of a comparative advantage than some other tools. In my next post I’ll talk about further adventures in online learning that persuaded me that sometimes this really IS a better way for students to learn.

As always, I welcome your comments. For once I’m not offering any links to people who know more about the subject than I do.

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