The Realistic Long-Term Sustainability of Online Learning

The university I work for recently hosted a luncheon with Douglas Rushkoff, social media theorist and author of books such as Life, Inc.  If you haven't heard of Rushkoff, he has some pretty good ideas (some that are fully radical in nature) that are all good food for thought. He was asked to comment about online learning and what he thought of it. His response was, unfortunately, based on the same mistake that I see many people make when discussing distance learning. He compared an excellent face-to-face course with a mediocre-to-poor online course.

We have all had really good face-to-face courses – taught by an energetic, enthusiastic instructor that really had some creative teaching methods. The truth of the matter is that most face-to-face courses are not like this.  Excellent face-to-face instruction requires a certain personality type… one that is semi-rare.  Rare enough that I can probably safely say that there is only a fraction of the number of really excellent teachers out there to cover all the classes that are being taught face-to-face.  Not to mention that even the best teachers will have off-days from time-to-time due to getting tired or even sick.

An excellent online class, by contrast, is more dependent on the skills of the instructor, rather than the personality.  These skills can be taught if the instructor is getting it wrong. You can't teacher people how to be an interesting, entertaining public speaker – but you can teach them how to build community, social presence, and immediacy, as well as how to design activities and assignments to take advantage of the online setting.  Not to mention that the more asynchronous a course is in design, the less it depends on an instructor's enthusiasm or energy level at a specific time of the day.

This is why I feel that online courses have a more realistic long-term sustainability than face-to-face courses. You need teachers with skills and not a certain personality to make them good.  We will always need face-to-face courses for certain subjects and just to keep human contact alive, but I think it would also be a good idea to transition the face-to-face courses that aren't working in to an online environment (training the instructors that don't have the personality to teach face-to-face on how to run a successful online course).

Rushkoff also quoted someone from Second Life as saying that SL will be photo realistic in 10 years time.  Rushkoff disagreed with this, stating that no matter how much we advance, something else will come up to keep it from being realistic.  I have to also slightly disagree here. If you go back in time and study art history, you will come to a time when people thought you would never have totally realistic paintings and portraits of real-life people.  They thought there would always be a limit to paintings.  Then, the camera was invented, and before long… you had totally realistic portraits.  I think with virtual worlds (and computer graphics in general), it is only a matter of some new discoveries to make them totally photo realistic.

I don't want to make it seem like I am picking apart everything Rushkoff says – those were just two points I wanted to comment on.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

2 thoughts on “The Realistic Long-Term Sustainability of Online Learning

  1. Matt, very interesting. You seem to be setting up a distinction between an X-Factor that cannot be taught (the ‘excellent’ live teacher) and the teacher-with-skills (a potential online teacher). I’m not sure I agree for a few reasons. I think X-factor teachers, the guys and gals with outsized personalities who are “entertainers” and who seem to bust at the seams of any limitation, are not necessarily the best teachers. They may be the most entertaining, sometimes, but not aways the most effective teachers. They have an X-factor, a ‘personality’, one that cannot be taught to others, but they are not the be all, end all, pedagogically speaking. I also think that more hybrid instructors are emerging all the time, who combine the best of both worlds, and collapsing a distinction between live and online instruction and types of instructors. But I take your point, and I’ve experienced it myself as a teacher: online classes have taught me discipline, focus and steadiness. In my online classes, I stick to the plan better without necessarily having to give up my spontaneity. In my live classes, if I’m tired, or having a bad day, I can slip into bad habits like getting off of topic or not being as serious as I should.

  2. Matt Crosslin

    I forgot to mention that the X-factor teacher that you are speaking of was what Rushkoff was holding up as the example of a good teacher. As I think about it, that would probably be a much larger problem we have in education – confusing entertaining teachers with solid, engaging teaching. That has been going on for a while, I would think.

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