Last week, in one of my articles, a reader commented that online learning basically consisted of “recorded videos and a web with tutorials and examples”.
For someone who has been teaching online for twenty years in addition to delivering face-to-face classes, who has had the opportunity to abundantly compare both models, and who has also seen the institution where I work reach the top of the international MBA rankings for its online programs, I simply can’t accept that we’re going to lose the greatest opportunity ever to develop this type of learning due to myths, clichés and half-truths.
For some reason, a significant part of society thinks that online learning:
- is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching, which is only justified by force majeure;
- must necessarily be cheaper;
- is based on self-learning, recorded videos and web pages with tutorials and examples;
- is so boring that students drop out;
- prevents students forming relationships;
- is “one size fits all” and unable to adapt to each student;
- etc., etc., etc…
Well, I’m here to tell you that online teaching is not all massive online open courses (MOOCs), which as the name suggests, are specifically designed to attract large numbers of people, are heavily standardized and automated, but that are only completed by around 5% of enrollees. Sure, they rely heavily on “recorded videos and web pages with tutorials and examples”, but that does not imply that all online teaching is limited to that.
Neither is online teaching “I can’t go to class because I live in a rural area with bad transportation” or “I can’t afford face-to-face teaching”. That might be the case with the institutions like the Khan Academy, which are great at what they do and play a very important role in some markets, but again: that does not mean that all online courses follow the same methodology. Similarly, the Open University and its equivalents around the world have done a fine job in attracting a wider public to adult education, but their approach is far from the benchmark.
Here’s the thing: online teaching does not have to be cheaper if more resources are invested in it than in its classroom equivalent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a face-to-face class is prepared, an online class is produced. And “producing” is more complex, involves more time and effort and provides more opportunities for higher quality content and delivery than simply preparing a face-to-face class. It’s up to teachers and their schools to decide whether to put in the time and effort, but it can be done. I can vouch for that.
And no, online teaching is not boring. In fact, methodologically it offers more variations than in the classroom, where, unfortunately, things are still largely being done in ways our grandparents or great-grandparents would understand. A well-produced online class can (and should) have more bidirectionality, more (and better) surveys and questions, more (and better) guests, and many more materials than can be used in a classroom, in addition to alternating asynchronous methods (forums), that provide depth, with synchronous methods (video conferencing) that provide proximity.
Neither is online teaching the like of “I’ve prepared the session, stuck it on a website page and that’s that”. That’s self-learning, which is not what online teaching is about.
Online learning doesn’t hinder students from forming relationships. Students and teachers can (and should) be in closer contact through an online environment than in a face-to-face one, and above all, the experience will be much richer. I can assure you that I know many of my students who I have taught online better than others who have simply sat in my face-to-face classes and barely participated. While presential classes are usually limited to class time and tutorials, online learning can involve instant messaging, forums, and even one-on-one video conferences in certain cases. Obviously, this does not mean that as a teacher you have to be available 24×7, but it does mean that you can be in contact more easily, without leaving your home. And when the class is over, students are still connected through messaging and social networks, and they talk and interact non-stop. Sure, seeing each other face-to-face is important, but what we get out of learning depends on the context and circumstances, and in the midst of a pandemic, we’re just going to have to accept some restrictions on contact.
My experience shows that online teaching provides greater depth, the use of better materials, more complete explanations and better quality. The reason is obvious: in a classroom setting, both teacher and student draw on the resources they have in their head or in a book, and they express themselves through speaking, with the obvious restrictions on time: a student cannot ask for more than one or two minutes, and teachers have to respond with what is in their heads at that moment. Online, students can formulate their questions in a written forum, extend them, think about them, document them with links or videos, and the teacher then has many more options and possibilities when answering than when in a classroom. When you add it all up, the only conclusion is that the online medium is richer. In short, given the right means and conditions, online teaching is better than its face-to-face counterpart.
The relevant factor in all this is that online teaching requires the right equipment and good bandwidth. Teaching online may not be simple or cheap, but it can be done. It’s not rocket science. If you like teaching and are offered a different way to do it, then go for it. If you like to teach, you will teach in the format you are given, and as soon as you try online education, you will see its infinite possibilities. My best discussions on complex concepts have not been in a classroom, they have been in an online session.
One of the best ways we have of turning this pandemic into an opportunity for all parties is to develop online teaching properly. Forget the myths and platitudes and let’s see it for what it really is, and develop it as it deserves to be developed, as something that we should continue using even when the pandemic is under control, on the many occasions when we will be unable to attend class. If we don’t, not only will we failing to fulfill online teaching’s huge educational potential, but possibly aiding a second wave of the disease.