Monday, 27 November 2006

With or without you: pros and cons of online education [2]

And this is the value of online education - that knowledge *can* be imparted and shared to the extent that deep learning occurs. If this didn't already already happen, then online learning simply wouldn't exist at all. While it might be said that f2f learning is best in some situations, it is not always necessary, and may even be at times inferior to online forms depending on the context. Below, I hope to convey that while there might be a linear progression from SMS to f2f embodied interaction in terms of how *personal* the communication is, there tends to be a non-linear scale of *value* for each communication media. As Burbules suggests, "The 'virtual' is not the opposite of the 'real' - it is a medial term, between the real and the artificial or imagined." And likewise, the many methods for online communication do not follow an imaginary line between 'real' and 'virtual'; they simply allow differing qualities of communication, each one with its own unique benefits and disadvantages.

SMS - Asynchronous
Pros: Quick, simple, useful for brief yet important announcements
Cons: Limited in scope of information and emotion that can be conveyed

Pros: Can transmit large amounts of written and image data anywhere in world. Asynchonicity is useful to ensure good quality of message.
Cons: Limited in quality of emotion that can be conveyed. Asynchronicity makes it discussion stilted.

Discussion board - synchronous messaging
Pros: Enables participants to discuss using text in real time. Participants can be located anywhere in world.
Cons: Current connection speeds will cause time lag which can make 'conversations' stilted. Text-only display can make multiple-person discussions somewhat difficult to manage. Limited in conveying nuances of emotion through speech.

Pros: Can be listened to at listener's own pace in any location. Good for auditory learners and can be more comfortable than reading large amounts. Reader can bring the subject to life
Cons: No immediate feedback possible. Lacks visual cues. 

Multimedia - Recorded lecture, video presentation, etc.
Pros: Can be viewed at any time in any global location to suit viewer's time and lifestyle. Might contain rich combination of information - i.e. online lecture on archaelogy might contain lecturer speaking, images of a particular site, 3D imaging, sound etc. 
Cons: Difficult to engage a question and answer discussion unless lecture is streamed live with discussion board capability. Not actual person in front of viewer, just a representation.

Pros: As with discussion board, but 3D environment makes it easier to cope with multiple people. Some emotions possible to convey. Can display rich multimedia content and provide immediate links to documents, podcasts, etc.
Cons: Time lag and limitations of typing speed makes discussion slower than f2f. As yet no voice-to-voice communication possible (but this may change).

Telephone conference
Pros: Voice can convey nuances of emotion and intention. Real time discussion possible.
Cons: Difficult to manage with multiple participants, arguably more so than plain-text. Lack of facial cues makes it less rich than f2f. Can be off-putting for some.

Pros: Real-time audio and visual cues make it possible to convey facial expressions and verbal nuances, things often seen to be main limitations of text-based communication. Participants can be located anywhere (in theory). Possible now to include multiple people, and visual stimuli makes conversation more natural.
Cons: Current connection speeds make images stilted and can be more a distraction than a benefit - this should improve with time. Not quite a physical 3D presence.

Pros: Most 'natural' - participants can perceive full complement of auditory and visual cues as well as sensing physical presence. Discussion in large numbers is manageable. Teaching is highly personal.
Cons: Real-time situation may make some uncomfortable. Limited by time and location - participants must be in the same room at the same time.

While there may be many more features and media that might be added to this list, it provides a rough summary, and hopefully shows that each method of communication has pros and cons. The ultimate distinction is that f2f communication requires that participants are present in the same place, while all other forms of communication do not. But that doesn't necessarily mean that f2f is best in all situations where people can be together, but if they can't then do then online ed is the next best thing. The argument for non-linearity recognises that f2f *is* best in *some* situations but not necessarily best in *all*, even where same location is possible.

In addition to the pros mentioned above, there are many arguments to suggest that at times, online education can be more beneficial than f2f learning. Burbules highlights three practical benefits that online interactions afford: "Some students speak up more under such circumstances; there is more time to reflect on what one is writing or reading ina an online discussion ... ; students are required to be more independently motivated ...". While he recognises these may equally be viewed as drawbacks, depending on the situation and learner, they may prove beneficial. 

In addition, online education can provide a certain liberation from social and cultural norms and constraints. As Stanford professor Fred Turner writes in *From Counter-Culture to Cyberculture*, online forms of communication can be "decentralised, egalitarian, harmonious and free", where the individual might "finally [be] free to step out outside [the body's] fleshy confines, explore its authentic interests, and find others with whom it might achieve communion". Perhaps a bit excessive, but he hints that with online communication people can be exactly who they want to be without race, age, background, looks, disabilities, etc. coming into play. As Turkle suggests in *Life on Screen* (quoted by Burbules), "the Internet is a zone of enormous creativity and experimentation". People are free to contribute in an environment where comments are taken at face value without common f2f power symbols and structures (such as looks, size, tone of voice, social hierarchies, etc.) in place and effecting outcomes. For some people this might be extremely liberating; and in the context of education, might foster a far more comfortable and effective learning environment.

So while Dreyfus argues that with loss of emodiment follows loss of authenticity and meaning, I agree that in some situations this may be the case, especially with younger learners, but that in some situations authenticity can *increase*. For example, users of LinkedIn, a social networking site for business people, report that they are able to form deep relationships very quickly based on detailed information about the other person and text-based communication, without having to go through the rigmarole of location-based meetings. In addition, Dreyfus complains that it is impossible to reach 'mastery level' of understanding when teacher and pupil are in different places. But if he is right, then an online Masters or PhD would be completely impossible. But how can he be right? Many people have successfully completed online programs up to PhD level and they are examined by the same criteria with which non-distance courses are evaluated. He cannot argue that online education is inferior if results prove otherwise.

As Burbules once again writes, "claims about which mode of interaction is 'better' must always be tempered by asking, 'better for whom?'". The multitude of modes of interaction cannot be measured in scales of inferiority/superiority per se, but can be valued with respect to the context and learning requirements. While online interaction may not be as 'personal' as f2f speaking, it cannot be said that it is 'not-real', as communication of value certainly takes place. So even though people may not sit within smelling distance of one another during online communication, we as humans are perfectly capable of constructing an imagined reality to cope with any lack of visual and auditory cues, to the extent that we can learn from each other perfectly well, and sometimes better, depending on the needs and situation of the learner.

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