• Larry White

To learn online or in class? That is the question.

This morning, a question crossed through my email from a researcher doing some work on this topic. The original question reads:

"E-learning has some mixed benefits. It has a lack of social interaction between the instructor and the students. But on the other hand, online learning is both inexpensive and less time-consuming. If a platform could actually cater content and interaction around the individual user—their speed, their interests, their location—then e-learning could give them the ability to learn whatever they want, from wherever they want. What do you think, with the advancement of technology will E-learning replace F2F learning?"

My response:

I understand that some of my comments may be viewed as controversial, but they come with total respect...

Why does this have to be a dichotomous choice?

Effective teaching and learning involve three fundamental components about which the educator must have some expertise: the development and delivery of learning outcomes, the curriculum, and the pedagogies associated with delivery. Any delivery mode - traditional, online or hybrid/blended - has the potential to deliver and produce learner satisfaction, but that success is dependant upon three critical inputs.

First, learners must be motivated and contribute the effort toward learning (I fully believe, for example, that learners have the right to fail in their studies should they wish to do so). Part of this is internally-driven, but the remainder depends fully on the following two inputs.

Second, at the point of design and development, the learning outcomes and curriculum must be considered mindfully through a lens of learner-centredness in such a way as to promote learning that serves the needs of modern learners preparing themselves for an uncertain, challenging, destabilizing future in which they will be required to navigate and address complex global problems, like climate change, for which there is no historical perspective. This responsibility falls on program managers, advisory committees, curriculum specialists and instructional designers... and two more groups that, here in Canada in each of our provinces, are not pulling their weight: (a) Ministries of Education and Advanced Education, many of whose policies are rooted in a history two centuries old, and (b) unions, whose members and administrators often seem unwilling to accept that teaching and learning require significant change if we are to future-proof our learners.

Finally, educators play a significant role as well. Educators play the central role of weaving together the learner experience based on the tools (the outcomes and curriculum provided) that they were given. Educators must shape the pedagogies to engage learners. The problem with this is, and I will speak from experience over the past 20 years in post-secondary (higher) education, that many educators have never been trained to do so. They may be experts in their respective fields, but few have actually received any formal training in curriculum delivery, learner mindsets or, most importantly, pedagogy. Some educators are amazing, but others - those that save a lecture capture online or those that post a readings and assignments list online and believe that to be online learning - are the reason, in my humble opinion, that we even have a conversation occurring regarding the efficacy of one delivery mode over another.

All delivery modes are viable. We simply need to be motivated and contribute the effort toward excellence in their development. After all, as educators, unlike learners, we do not have the right to fail indiscriminately. If we choose to behave this way, we do a fundamental disservice to our learners, to our profession and to our personal reputation.

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