TITLE: Meaningful Interaction and On-Line Education AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 10, 2013 11:18 AM DESC: ----- BODY: After tweeting a jewel from Clay Shirky's latest article, I read the counterpoint article by Maria Bustillos, Venture Capital's Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College, and an earlier piece by Darryl Tippens in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Technology Has Its Place: Behind a Caring Teacher. I share these writers' love of education and sympathetic to many of their concerns about the future of the traditional university. In the end, though, I think that economic and technological forces will unbundle university education whether we like it or not, and our best response is not simply to lament the loss. It is to figure out how best to preserve the values of education in the future, not to mention its value to future citizens. While reading Bustillos and Tippens, I thought about how the lab sciences (such as physics, biology, and chemistry) are in many ways at a bigger disadvantage in an on-line world than disciplines that traffic primarily in ideas, such as the humanities. Lab exercises are essential to learning science, but they require equipment, consumable supplies, and dedicated space that are not typically available to us in our homes. Some experiments are dangerous enough that we don't want students trying them without the supervision of trained personnel. Humanities courses have it relatively easier. Face-to-face conversation is, of course, a huge part of the educational experience there. But the sharing of ideas, and the negotiation of shared understanding, can be conducted in a number of ways that are amenable to on-line communication. Reading and writing have long played a central role in the growth of knowledge, alongside teaching in a classroom and conversation with like-minded individuals in close personal settings. I soon realized something. Bustillos and Tippens, like so many others, seem to assume that collaboration and meaningful interaction cannot happen on-line. Bustillos puts it harshly, and inaccurately:
MOOCs are an essentially authoritarian structure; a one-way process in which the student is a passive recipient required to do nothing except "learn."
Tippens expresses the sentiment in a more uplifting way, quoting Andrew Delbanco:
Learning is a collaborative rather than a solitary process.
On-line education does not have to be passive any more than a classroom has to be passive. Nor must it be solitary; being alone a lot of the time does not always mean doing alone. A few faculty in my department have begun to create on-line versions of their courses. In these initial efforts, interaction among students and teacher have been paramount. Chat rooms, e-mail, wikis, and discussion boards all provide avenues for students to interact with the instructor and among themselves. We are still working at a small scale and primarily with students on-campus, so we have had the safety valve of face-to-face office hours available. Yet students often prefer to interact off hours, after work or over the weekend, and so the on-line channels prove to be most popular. Those in the software world have seen how collaboration can flourish on-line. A lot of the code that makes our world go is developed and maintained by large, distributed communities whose only opportunities to collaborate are on-line. These developers may be solitary in the sense that they work in a different room from their compatriots, but they are not solitary in the sense of being lonesome, desolate, or secluded. They interact as a matter of course. Dave Humphrey has been using this model and its supporting technology as part of his teaching at Seneca College for a few years now. It's exciting. My own experience with on-line interaction goes back to the 1980s, when I went to graduate school and discovered Usenet. Over the next few years, I made many good friends, some of whom I see more often in-person than I see most friends from my high school and college years. Some, I have never met in person, yet I consider them good friends. Usenet enabled me to interact with people on matters of purely personal interest, such as basketball and chess, but also on matters of academic value. In particular, I was able to discuss AI, my area of study, with researchers from around the world. I learned a lot from them, and those forums gave me a chance to sharpen my ability to express ideas. The time scale was between the immediate conversation of the classroom and the glacial exchange of conference and journal papers. These on-line conversations gave me time to reflect before responding, while still receiving feedback in a timely fashion. They were invaluable. Young people today grow up in a world of on-line interaction. Most of their interactions on-line are not deep, to be sure, but some are. And more could be, if someone could show them the way. That's the educator's job. The key is that these youth know that on-line technology allows them to be active, to create, and to learn. Telling them that on-line learning must be passive or solitary will fall on deaf ears. Over twenty years of teaching university courses has taught me how important face-to-face interaction with students can be. How well experiments in on-line education address the need for interpersonal communication will go a long way to determining whether they succeed as education. But assuming that collaboration and meaningful interaction cannot happen on-line is surely a losing proposition. -----