Saturday, 25 November 2006

With or without you: pros and cons of online education [1] 

As Burbules suggests in his arguments, Dreyfus does a good and necessary job dispelling some of the hyperbolic statements which herald online learning as the best thing that's happened to education since the book. Statements like these - such as Perelman's (School's out, 1993), 'we have the technology today to enable virtually anyone who is not severely handcappd to learn anything, at a 'grade A' level, anywhere, anytime.' - do nothing to advance our appreciation of online learning, and if anything can actually damage its popularity. But there is a danger of throwing the virtual baby out with the bathwater. The key issue is this: online communication and distance learning exists; and the key question we must ask ourselves, as Burbules puts it, is '*where* and *how* can these technologies be used to support particular educational purposes, and where can they not be?'. It is this question that I hope to address here.

I will first explore the latter part of the question - where shouldn't online systems be used in education? There are immediately obvious situations where online learning is inappropriate and inadequate. For anything which involves kinaesthetic learning, such as sport, surgery or laboratory tasks for example, it is likely to be extremely difficult to learn these motor tasks without guidance from a teacher being present. While people might be able to learn knowledge related to such fields online, the impracticalities of watching a screen while attempting to carry out these tasks makes life difficult for the learner, and is a poor replacement for the real thing.

Another area where I feel that online systems are inadequate is when f2f social interaction with other learners is a key feature of educational purpose. For example, in primary and secondary education it is surely vital that students learn how to interact with each other, and to suggest that all children should stay at home and log-in for all lessons would be madness. Advocates of home-learning may beg to differ, as might pupils who are being bullied or who are uncomfortable in the school environment, in which case online learning may provide a suitable alternative some of the time. But on the whole it is generally accepted that children ought to be taught in groups, as this helps foster the ability to form healthy social relationships.

This raises the question as to whether this argument follows for undergraduate and FE, where the transferrable skills that students gain from this physical learning community might be as important as any knowledge gained. I asked a member of the LEA of the Western Isles of Scotland whether e-learning might be valuable for isolated communities such as his, and he swiftly replied that for the island's young people, it was vital that they left the islands to go to college/uni to meet others and see the world; for older people this was not so necessary. It seems that even at undergrad level, except in exceptional circumstances where it might be impossible, it is important that students come together physically, as forming relationships and learning to live among other people forms an integral part of the overall learning experience. [This is not to say that some elements of the undergrad course might be done online - see below - but simply that it should not compromise the value of students coming together to socialise and learn vital life skills.] 

So what does that leave us: postgraduate learning, adult education and business training. Within these areas, it can be taken for granted that learners do not require the secondary social benefits that group education can have. In these situations, there may be times when online teaching is inferior to f2f, but there will also be many times when benefits far outweigh any negatives.

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