Sunday, August 23, 2009

3. Teach distant learners as much like f2f as possible (10 things I no longer believe)

Here's what I once believed about distance learning (e.g., telecourses, online learning):

Who learns: Distance learning was for isolated students who lived many miles from campus. Each student worked alone, connected by a slender technological bridge to (some of) the intellectual riches housed on that particular campus.

Teaching methods
: The roots of distance teaching lay in old technologies:
  • the book (distance learning began when a teacher first said to a student, ‘go away, read this book, think about it, come back, and we’ll talk) and
  • the auditorium (‘go sit in the twentieth row and take notes while I talk’).
Because those presentational teaching methods were OK on campus, they were also OK for distance learning, we believed. Yes, computer courseware and online discussion provided some enrichment. But distant students learned mostly by reading text, watching lectures (on a screen), and doing homework, just as resident students mostly did. Perhaps that's why hundreds of studies could detect no statistically significant difference in student test scores. It's what students do that mostly determines what students learn. And, if you strip away the appearances, 'distant learners' and 'campus learners' were doing much the same thing. Threat to quality? Nonetheless, some people argued, these new students were isolated from each other, deprived of the faculty member’s personalized attention and unable to use the campus’s most prized resources (its library, laboratories, playing fields, and dormitory bull sessions, for example). Distance learning would necessarily be at best a little inferior, at worst a fraudulent education tempting needy students to take the easy way to an empty credential. Evaluation criteria for this use of technology:
  1. Outcomes comparable to those from courses taught on campus?
  2. Net gains in numbers of students enrolling and graduating?
  3. Net economic gains? (additional tuition and fees paid by these extra learners; lower costs of teaching students off campus).
About this series of posts: One at a time, we’re discussing ten things I once believed about transforming teaching and learning with technology. The first five beliefs are strategies for using technology: 1. to attract resources, 2. to improve learning outcomes, 3. to increase the number of students enrolling and graduating (this post), 4. to increase revenue while cutting costs, and 5. to make work easier. I post one old belief every Monday. On Wednesday or Thursday of that week, I post what I now believe instead. Later this week, I’ll suggest that the label “distance learning” (or ‘online learning’ when used as a synonym) has become dangerously misleading: most of the students aren't distant. And trying to give them the same kind of education that the campus has provided wastes an exciting opportunity. To see a table that summarizes all ten old and new beliefs, with links to the posts that have appeared so far, see

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