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Anyone who thinks I’m a knee-jerk proponent of substituting online learning for face-to-face interactive learning hasn’t read Now You See It, where my heroes are inspiring, passionate, engaged teachers, many of whom augment their classroom lessons with online assignments or, conversely, who amplify all the kinds of learning their students accomplish on line with real-time, face-to-face dialogue and interaction about the importance, meaning, and implications of digital learning.  I thought about all of these issues today as I read what seems to be an excellent expose of the contrast between the dismal performance of online schools for the students versus the quite remarkable financial performance, on Wall Street, of these same schools.  As one researcher notes:  “The kids enroll. You get the money, the kids disappear.”  Apppalling.   The only one who profits there is the investor, not the students.  And certainly not the former teachers!


So that is the key question:  is the motivation for online learning enriching an online experience more and more of us are having and finding new and inventive ways to learn?  Or is the real motive enriching share holders, even if it is at the expense of real learning?


Here’s the superb article by Stephanie Saul:   “Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street than In Classrooms,” by…


Before we pronounce about online learning versus face-to-face, we have to make distinctions.   Here are seven key ones (that also happen to be some of my personal pet peeves in this whole debate):

(1) Dropping expensive technology into classrooms without changing the rules, models, methods, or content of the learning experience.   From Saul’s article, it sounds as if at least one of the for-profit schools is not only doing this but is doing it on the cheap.  One $$$ gadget is cheaper than a teacher’s salary.   Except if you measure against future learning, future jobs, future possibilities for a creative, productive adult life.


(2) Assuming that the real reason to substitute technology for real teaching is because it saves money–or, worse, it helps make money for investors.   Appalling.  This reminds me of the 1990s when private corporations began investing in prisons, when the prison workers’ unions not only became powerful (and very well paid) but active lobbiests on behalf of mandatory sentencing laws, and whole segments of society began to tumble into cycles of poverty and incarceration at someone else’s expenses.   Then, equally tragically, it turned out that the for-profit prison-industrial system wasn’t even making much money for investors.  Are for-profit schools the next gambit?   Appalling.


(3)  At the same time, luddite teaching that pretends students are not spending lots of time online when they are not in school strike are simply irresponsible.   Teachers who teach for their past instead of their students’ present and future are as narcisstic as those who simply believe the job is done by dumping the technology in the classroom.  Indeed, it’s a similarly insular thinking–an assumption that the “job is done” when one is not doing the real, hard, painstaking, involved work of engaging students in their hearts and passions and imaginations and helping them to learn to thrive in the world they have inherited.


(4)  Teaching as if face-to-face time weren’t one of the most precious of gifts and finding ways to make the most of that extraordinary experience of collective, communal learning—what, at HASTAC, we call “learning the future together.”    I have said before that, if we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.   By that I mean if you offer nothing more as a teacher than a computer screen, then you are wasting everyone’s time by being there.  On the other hand, if you are creative, engaged, interactive, relevant, and attentive, no computer screen will ever replace you.


(5) Thinking teaching is ever ‘one size fits all.’   I suspect there are some skills, lessons, and other forms of knowledge that can be mastered very successfully online.  In fact, one of my projects ahead is to take a range of online courses so I can see for myself how well I learn (I can’t really speak for anyone else) on line.  I would like to take some Kahn Academy courses, for example.  I haven’t figured out what but I love astronomy so I think that is where I might begin.  I want to take a drawing course online too (although I have a friend who is a fabulous artist, with a sensitive line whose expressiveness can make you weep, and I am talking with her about maybe augmenting my online drawing class with her own sage advice).   I helped tutor a student in expository writing last term and felt that some basics were possible but I very disappointed in the low and even mechanical forms of learning in that course.   On the other hand, if Sebastian Thrun teaches his AI course again at Stanford, I’d love to take it.   And I’d love to see if I could get back what once was said to be “perfect pitch” by an online music listening course.   I know, I know, that is a pretty irrational syllabus.  But if I manage to carry through on even one of these, I promise to report back.


(6) The key difference between my self-prescribed online learning syllabus and the for-profit schools in this New York Times article:  choice.   Even if it turns out I learn a lot from my online courses, the chief reason will be I want to learn, I have the will to learn, but I don’t really have any need to learn.  I learn this way because my life is too over-scheduled to learn it in a conventional classroom.  This is all a luxury for me, a convenience.  That is the opposite of the form of teaching the for-profit in this New York Times article delivers to kids who don’t really have a choice, who don’t have other means, who don’t have a baseline of learning, experience, and success in place (i.e. it doesn’t matter if I fail Drawing 101), and who have a desperate need.  Apples and oranges.


And that brings me to (7) My biggest pet peeve of all is those who generalize about “online learning” versus “face to face learning” as if who, what, where, why, and how don’t make all the difference.    So much punditry denounces online learning as if it were homogenous.   So much chicanery comes from extolling  online learning in the same way, as if it is the be-all and the end-all, the solution to failing schools .


Learning is always personal, intimate, specific.   Our discussions of the pros and cons of different kinds of learning have to be equally so.   To settle for any less–in one direction or the other–is to shortchange one of the most important conversations we can be having right now.


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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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