By Sheldon Greaves
Lately some of us have been congregating on the web every Saturday for an informal class/discussion group on the essentials of scientific mathematics led by George Hrabovsky. This has been an interesting opportunity for me to think about the business of learning online. Some recent stories in the news cite a study that shows students do not learn as effectively online as they do in classrooms. The study, cited in the Journal of Higher Education ("Community-College Students Perform Worse Online Than Face to Face") discovered significant differences in online vs. real-time courses:
The study, which followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington State between 2004 and 2009, found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses. Although students who enrolled in online courses tended to have stronger academic preparation and come from higher income brackets than the community-college population on the whole, researchers found that students who took online classes early in their college careers were more likely to drop out than those who took only face-to-face courses. Among students who took any courses online, those with the most Web-based credits were the least likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution.
As someone who has designed and taught numerous online courses, this does not surprise me all that much. Online courses are inherently deficient in the level of interaction, the "subchannels" humans have developed to communicate nuances of meaning. Teaching and learning is also more than just the delivery of information, downloading it into a student's brain. It involves the creation of relationships and a basis beyond that of Sender and Receiver.
One thing I learned in my own work with online education is that the best way to improve student retention and course completion is to employ a very comprehensive communication and contact protocol. The student needs to feel that they are part of a real, live, dynamic community, which is not easy to do through the tenuous medium of the Internet. My experience further suggests that a major flaw in the thinking behind online courses is that they tend to follow a manufacturer's mindset, as if competent students can be mass-produced according to a standard, one-size-teaches-all recipe. Of course, seasoned teachers know the folly of this kind of thinking.
This is not to say that it was a waste of time for MIT, Yale, and other major universities to make their courses available online for free. Quite the contrary; not everyone can afford to go to college, let alone enroll at Yale. But it leaves out the social factor, and that can make or break the learning experience.
Working with George and my fellow online learners has given me a chance to examine the role of a learning community forming around a subject of common interest. One of my former professors was fond of saying that the best university in the world was two people sitting on either end of a very short log, arguing passionately with each other. I'd throw in some books, too, but his point was that learning is as much a social process as it is an intellectual one.
The thought occurs that a school is essentially a social thing. Learning groups as institutions are lagging behind the formation of online bodies of courseware and resources. One of my goals for CSL is to make a community of science learners, doers, and teachers. As our community grows and we support more activities such as George's class, the social artifact may prove to be the most powerful part of what we do.Â