Friday, September 4, 2009

Online learning works better because...?

"Study finds that Online Learning Beats the Classroom." That's the headline, and if the New York Times says it, then it's got to be so. And especially if it's coming from one of the Gray Lady's bloggers. We're talking credibility to spare here.

All right, stop laughing and read on.

There's the link, so you can take a look for yourself. The study in question was conducted for the US Department of Education by an independent firm. That firm studied a whole lot of other studies, and drew the conclusion that students who study in online classes do better, to a small but statistically significant degree, than students in traditional classrooms. That's where the Gray Lady's facts end, and the opinions begin. The rest of the article is conjecture as to how this could be so. The arguments are sound, but they are just opinions.

So in the spirit of blogging, I'll add my own. Online learning gives you the room you need to pay attention. The way standard online classes are currently run, you have the time to digest before you ask, to ask before you answer, to interact as much or as little as you want, to look up what you need. Even in the most standard of online formats, where 20 students are asked on Monday to read a bunch by Wednesday, then are told on Wednesday to post to a discussion board three times by Friday, then are asked on Friday to write and submit a paper by Sunday... it's still completely okay that Mark takes a lot longer to ponder the discussion postings or write his own thoughts than Mary takes. Not the case in a standard classroom, where if you don't keep up with the main body of the group (or in the worst case, with the professor's chosen pace), sorry, you just don't keep up.

There are other factors. There's motivation. People who choose online learning may be leaning into the work just a little more heavily, willing to work a little bit harder. If I'm the sort who doesn't require social approval for my new hair style or my sharp new shoes, maybe I'm also the sort who would just as soon dive into the meat of the content. No offense meant to Elle Woods wannabe's, but online, a whole lot of the superficial social gets stripped away, and those who like it like pared down may be those who are also just a tad more focused on their work.

And while we're speculating, let me add one more. And this, to me, is the big one most people miss. Online learning is a product. Classroom learning is a service. There is a huge difference between the two, and those of us who have labored long and hard in this field have had to come to grips with it early and often. In the classroom, about the only thing that could be called a product is the textbook. The rest is a service offered by the instructor to teach the students. (Or the servitude demanded of students by the instructor, depending on the particular academician in question).

Online, though, everything's a product, and it feels that way to students. There are layouts and font sizes. There are graphics and profile pictures and videos. There's even a voice, in the literary sense, that comes across as product. Because of this, those who create and provide online courses spend more time thinking about them. They worry over the order of instruction, about what goes where, about how exactly to pose the questions or write the assignment instructions for maximum clarity, about whether this diagram is better than that one. Even an off-the-cuff video lecture, once it's recorded, is no longer off-the-cuff. It gets edited. And sometimes it gets replaced by a better one.

Does the product nature of an online course make it better? Think of it this way.... Are you more likely or less likely to have a good dining experience when the chefs and waiters and the maitre'd are all focused on things like how the tables are arranged, and what the lighting and the linens look like, and how best to arrange the chicken on the china, and the china on the cotton cloth--rather than a single cook showing up for work and figuring he can wing it? Just so, are you more or less likely to have a quality learning experience when an instructor and an instructional designer and maybe a graphic designer or media developer are paying close attention to the product details of layout, visuals, and wordsmithing, rather than one faculty member scanning last semester's notes on the way to the lecture hall while balancing a latte?

I'd bet on the paying-close-attention scenario.

1 comment:

  1. Add time on task to the list of possible contributors. If there are fewer distractions, and moving physically from class to class is eliminated, that may help. Then there is the "forced participation" online - every student must contribute to the online discussion if they wish to pass the class. In a classroom you can leave the class contributions to the eager students in the front row. :D