Friday, 26 June 2009

You can't do that in a classroom!

I’ve often noticed a perception amongst colleagues and students that eLearning can only ever be a poor substitute for what they consider ‘real’ learning environments which are, necessarily, face-to-face. While there is considerable evidence to suggest that eLearning should avoid simply replicating face-to-face teaching and learning strategies, too often that is precisely how eLearning is judged: on its capacity (or lack thereof) to support what can be done in a face-to-face setting. What we see here is that ‘traditional’ or ‘face-to-face’ learning operates as a kind of normative discourse: a set of shared assumptions about how teaching and learning ought to happen.

Experienced users of eLearning (whether in stand-alone or hybrid/blended situations) will agree that there are many, many things you can do in an online learning environment that you simply can’t do in the rigidly synchronous environment of a face-to-face classroom. What this tells us is that rather than being an ideal against which other types of learning environments should be measured, the face-to-face learning environment, like all learning environments, has both strengths and limitations. It’s become the norm or standard against which other environments are measured simply because for so long it was the only environment available.

I think it’s time we shifted our thinking away from what eLearning can do to what traditional teaching environments can’t do. The simple fact is, however, that such thinking is deeply iconoclastic. The simple suggestion that traditional, face-to-face learning environments have limitations and *gasp* may even be found wanting is unthinkable to many teachers and learners who have never experienced anything else. But that’s precisely the point. It’s vital that we be able to evaluate different teaching and learning environments on their objective relative merits in order to best harness their distinct potentials. As such, it’s vital that we move away from old-fashioned hierarchical thinking that positions face-to-face learning environments at the top of the heap.

To that end, here is a list of 5 things that can’t be (easily) done in a rigidly synchronous learning space (a time-limited physical face-to-face classroom):

1 It is difficult or impossible for everyone to make a valuable and useful contribution – particularly in large groups.
- Face-to face classrooms offer little in the way of ‘democracy’ of learning. If you’re shy, find speaking in public hard, have a first language other than that being used for discussion, and/or live with a speaking or hearing difficulty then a face-to-face discussion can be incredibly alienating and difficult to participate in. While participation in a discussion or face-to-face activity isn’t essential for effective learning, being consistently excluded from them can be demoralising and limiting for students.

2 It’s impossible to provide learning at a time and place where all students are ready and prepared to learn it.
- We know students learn at different paces and build on different sets of prior understanding. Assuming that they’re ready to learn what they need to learn at, say, 10.30am on a particular Thursday morning is anathema to this. If a student is not ready at that designated point in time, once the class has finished, they’ve missed their chance and can only achieve the learning on their own. If, for instance, they listen to a 50 minute lecture which they simply don’t understand, even if they go away afterwards and do further reading/research to deepen their understanding, they can’t revisit the lecture as it’s been and gone. They’re also unlikely to have useful notes to which they can refer.
- students who have to miss face-to-face classes (because of illness, caring and/or work responsibilities etc) will always have a significantly impaired learning experience when face-to-face environments prevail.
- face-to-face classes make it hard to tap into the zeitgeist that can make learning authentic. In other words, when something happens in the cultural, social and/or political sphere (such as a scientific breakthrough being reported in the media or a crisis emerging on a reality television show) which is relevant to what the students are learning, they can’t discuss it with each other immediately or as it’s developing but must wait until the next scheduled class which could be up to a fortnight away.

3 It’s difficult or impossible for students to break away to reflect on their understanding or conduct more research to better inform their engagement with the subject at hand.
- In the rigidly limited time of a synchronous class there’s simply no time for students to stop and have a think about their understanding or do any further reading or research to inform their understanding. This impedes students who learn at a slower pace, or those who need more time to digest, reflect and ‘fine-tune’ their thinking and understanding before contributing. If these students achieve learning breakthroughs after the class time has expired, they’re unlikely to be able to make a contribution as there will necessarily be a significant break before the next class which will, more often than not, be moving on to a new topic and offer little opportunity for revisiting previous discussions.
- In face-to-face learning environments students are often disconnected from tools which they can use to search for resources (such as web-enabled computers and smartphones) and if they are connected, teachers often discourage students from using them in a classroom (for example by asking them to turn off their phones).

4 It’s difficult to have students practice and develop their writing skills, to write collaboratively or learn vicariously in a face-to-face classroom.
- While seminars offer a valuable peer-learning opportunity, the vast majority of collaboration in a seminar happens through oral communication even though the vast majority of their assessment is undertaken through written communication; this immediately presents a significant misalignment between teaching and assessment strategies. There simply isn’t enough time for all students to practice their writing and share it with each other in a standard face-to-face classroom or to assess all students by viva-voce.
- In face-to-face classes students almost never have an opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers in the construction of written materials. Face-to-face classes therefore offer no peer-learning opportunities that students can use to develop their written communication skills.
- It’s difficult for students in a face-to-face classroom to undertake vicarious learning – in other words to watch other students learn - by reading their scholarly writing.

5 It’s difficult or impossible to give all students regular, targeted and personalised feedback on their informal learning achievements.
- most students only get personal, targeted feedback on their formal assessment submissions which can be as few as two times per module. Offering regular, written feedback and feedforward to all students on their participation and contribution to face-to-face classes is both difficult and rare.

With thanks to Sue Folley for her advice and comments.