Monday, November 08, 2010

In Your Face: the New York Times & Online Learning

Last week's two NYT articles,"Learning in Dorm, Because Class is Online" and "Live vs. Distance Learning: Measuring the Differences", both by Trip Gabriel, attribute a number of maladies to online course delivery: hyper-crowded classes (1500+!), lack of faculty/student interaction, student malaise and boredom, and learning inequities among Hispanic and non-Hispanic learners exacerbated in online settings.

When a motivated student complains, at the end of "Learning in a Dorm," that online learning is "all the same . . . . No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late," Mr. Gabriel takes the student's observation at face value. In this the same article we learn that one professor is teaching 1500 students in a blended (online & f2f) intro microeconomics class. What kind of TA support is that teacher getting? Or training in interactive technologies (like Hotseat, a Twitter-and-text app created at Purdue) to augment student participation in large lecture classes? Wittingly or unwittingly, Mr. Gabriel has created dramatic irony: we who are watching this tragedy of learning know more than the players themselves.

Gabriel's narrative choices got traction. The article dug into the ten "most-emailed" NYT articles for three days after initial publication, until the Sunday edition rolled out and the popular columnists swept it away. One imagines parents frantically emailing this article to each other and worrying whether their kids are getting the instruction they deserve, and for which they are richly paying.

The article makes trenches of the lines drawn in the sand: those who see social media as shallow, trivial and ephemeral, a root cause of young people's disengagement from "real" social contexts; and those who see social media as participatory, liberating, and fundamentally enabling of identities. danah boyd is my favorite author writing about teens, social media and identity-formation. Her Oct. 29 address to the 32nd International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners cannily explained teens' attitudes toward privacy even as they pervasively build identities via social networking platforms like texting, Facebook and Twitter. She observes:

People may not like having their privacy violated or being in situations where they're being surveilled, but they will always choose social status and community over privacy. They would rather be vulnerable to more people and deal with institutions than to feel disconnected from their peers and loved ones.

Students are already online all the time. Online instruction, far from alienating them, ought to hit them where they live. If it's not, the fault is not with the online mechanism, but human error: either burdening faculty with new technical requirements they are ill-prepared to meet in addition to their other responsibilities; or cramming classes so full of people that they resemble small cities or raves: full of random possible connections, but not designed to inculcate individual learning and satisfaction.

Readers of this blog know that I advocate f2f learning. I love it. But I want to teach 75% of my class online--all the while mentoring students, continuing to give them the "high touch" insight and access they expect from a f2f setting. I advocate HYBRID writing classes), as do others in the field. See Scott Warnock's post at Online Writing Teacher to learn more about this trend.

Whose interests are being served, I wonder, by the NYT's choice to villify online learning?

The U.S. Department of Education, in its 94-page study "Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning" (September 2010) notes with alarm that there are no sustained, meta-critical studies of online v. f2f learning outcomes dating from 1996-2008. It's a strange elision, this aporia of data. It suggests that we did not *see* f2f as a form of information delivery until online delivery attained sufficient critical mass to be an option for a huge volume of learners.

And sucked such learners away from f2f settings: witness the huge jump in homeschooling among K-12 families, and the rise of the for-profit online learning vendors.

Those developments alone might make the NYT and other ancien regime media institutions board up the brick-and-ivied chateaux against the hoards of collegiate learners rushing online--at a fraction of the cost of residential universities. Online learning, in the NYT and other top-down media outlets, is frequently portrayed as a financial last resort: a bargain-basement knock-off of authentic, holistic learning, which, we are left to conclude, happens face-to-face.

[Shout out, btw, to John Hagel, who coined "ancien regime" to describe old-media film critics' passionate embrace of The Social Network. See his terrific post about SN's "grand narrative" here.]

Mr. Gabriel's most glaring elision in that online learners have unprecedented access to information, academic research and actual university classes. Never before have the vistas for non-privileged learners been so expansive. This seems worth mentioning as we worry over whether freshman will elect to blow off lecture, and maybe never get around to watching the vid stream. Did you know anybody who blew off class and failed to borrow the lecture notes? Online delivery changes how we can participate in class, but it hasn't changed human nature.

Mr. Gabriel's allegorical tale about online learning (sloth! avarice! despair!) might actually be sensitive to the tectonic rumblings of the ground beneath our feet. The big story isn't the one about lazy or disenfranchised learners.

Rather, it's the hint that brick-and-mortar universities are St. George battling the dragon: the valiant human brandishing his sword against a fierce, vast opponent who has no honor (for-profit learning? Onscreen? Bah! Begone, dragon!).

Trick is to watch for the a huge reach and sharp claws.

Villifying online learning delivery won't slay the dragon. Learning how to tame it, integrate it, bring it home to the chateau, will.

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