E-Learning: Digital Dance or Education’s Elegy?

by George Fogarasi

You want a new addition or financial advice. You buy a dense textbook, ingest the information, and do the multiple choice tests at the end of each chapter. Presto! You’ve got a new skill.

No, not really. Not at all.

We learn by doing. We learn with and through others. Learning is irreducibly social, a dance best guided by a skilled teacher noting where the student is at, the pace of the next steps and their eventual trajectory. Ideas meet, tango and blossom yet more ideas.

Enduring learning never comes from somebody droning sentences at you from PowerPoint slides or from a dry textbook you read alone. So why do we so often replicate this impossible situation online?

Well, it’s cheap. And it’s the easiest online environment to create. Digital doodads look good in a brochure. Those not on the front-line tell each other “students want it” so often it sounds true. None of this equates to effective teaching and learning.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While a digitally mediated classroom can never replicate the rich tapestry of a brick and mortar / soul and laughter classroom, there are ways to make online learning a far better experience than the default it too easily invites.

The community and interaction of a classroom must be consciously crafted online. This takes time. During Common Block Development, a team was given the time and resources to learn together and create a spectrum of excellent hybrid courses. Fleming recognizes that an hour of online instruction takes the work an hour of classroom instruction does and supports this on faculty SWFs, enabling instructors to go beyond the soporific textbook-multiple-choice-test banality of so much online learning.

For example, students can write 3-2-1 Reflections online. These open-ended responses surf Bloom’s taxonomy from the “What” to the “Why.” Students are given a reading and write the three most important points, two things that confuse them, and one good question to the author about the material (not “why did you write this?” or “what’s your sign?”). Then, students craft a detailed response to a peer.

These are quick to grade, offer instant insight into where students are at, but most importantly, create a community of learning. There are many other ways to do this, up to and including synchronous learning where students and the professor are online simultaneously. This negates the convenience of asynchronous learning and takes institutional support and planning, but it is an especially effective way to create community among students that are dispersed over a large distance. Another tactic is to meet for the start of a course, foster community, and do the back end online.

Students justly gripe “I paid to be taught by a teacher“ when abandoned to the solitary cerebral confinement of their own company online. Forging vibrant digital learning communities is a challenge for instructors, students and the college. Instructors need professional development and their own communities of learning to foster active digital learning. Students need support to craft digital academic skills that facilitate online success, and the college needs to keep recognizing and supporting the complexity of online learning.

When this comes together, e-learning communities can blossom, but it takes time, skill, intentionality, and institutional support. But the alternative is isolated students sitting alone, iPads and educational apps nothing but gussied up mimeographs and textbooks: here’s the knowledge, kid, go to it.

It’s no way to learn.