Last week I was having a nice conversation with a new online friend about helping her move her “in-person” teaching into the land of the Interwebs. (This is a conversation that I’ve now had 21,586 times — since I do this sort of thing for a living — so I’m getting better and better at it.) As usual, she was bemoaning the fact that there were parts of the in-person teaching experience that you “just couldn’t translate” into the online world. With great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, I told her that those of us with a great deal of experience in developing online learning had a technical term for that concern. We called it “dumb”. As you might expect, a short silence followed.
(I need to interject here that my new friend understands that I’m an obnoxious, opinionated old bear and doesn’t object to that at all. Had I been dealing with someone who was more sensitive I might have described this as a “possible disconnect in her evaluation of the potential learning modality available within the online form factor as it relates to the more traditional instructor-led design model” or something like that.)
When she asked me to give her more detail, I said that thinking of the digital world as a place to just move her in-person class model didn’t make sense, because she already had a great place to teach in person. It was called real life. What she needed to do was learn about the wonderful things that you can do in the online world that you can’t do in person, the experiences that learners can have in the online world that can’t be replicated in the meat world, and the ways that a digital teacher can create amazing experiences that would never be possible if they were in a traditional classroom.
How About An Example, Then?
Thank you for asking. One of my favorites involves what I call the “Poindexters” that all of us have in our real-world classrooms. They’re the ones who sit in the front, have a pocket protector and a fresh notebook, and wave their hands high in the air every time we ask a question. They want to be called on, they crave attention, and hope that the whole class hears them answer every question. (I have a great sympathy for them, because I is one.) In the back of the room, we have the Wallflowers. Heads down, never engaging, terrified that you’ll call on them and make them look stupid if they answer wrong. Many of these people have the correct answer — and often some of the most interesting ideas — but you never get to hear them. Because over the years in education we’ve taught them that the focus is on getting the right answer at all costs. So they just won’t participate. In the online world, I can ask every student to log in as their favorite candy bar for the day. (This means nobody in class knows who they are.) Then, when I ask a question, the Poindexters and the Wallflowers are on a level playing field. You should see the sparks fly! You should see the creativity, the passion, and the engagement! There are many more examples. Online offers learners more time to create their thoughts and craft them carefully. Those learners who are glib and can speak quickly and easily (I’m also guilty of that) are no longer at an advantage. Collaboration looks very different online. Research looks very different online. And peer-to-peer learning works wonderfully online, meaning the poor teacher doesn’t have to be the source of every bit of information.
So Online Learning Is All You Need, Then?
Oh, Pish-Tosh! It’s just one more tool in the bag. Just because we got pens, we didn’t give up on pencils. There are good parts and bad parts to any way of delivering knowledge to young skulls full of mush. And so far, we’re only scratching the surface on how to do digital learning right. Want to glimpse the future? Take a look at Building Intelligent Interactive Tutors: Student-Centered Strategies For Revolutionizing e-Learning” by Beverly Park Woolf. In a nutshell, it’s AI that watches how the student is doing and offers meaningful help just when it is needed. (Think “Clippy” on steroids.) We’ll always have classrooms, and I’ll always love to teach in them.