The Doxa of the Classroom or When Online Learning Fails

We have heard it all before (here and here, for example) that online learning does not work very well. This assertion is too simplistic. I think the problem is more specific: the very function of online learning is fundamentally misunderstood by the majority of postsecondary institutions, even those that claim to “do it right.” The problem is that much online learning tries to mimic the face-to-face classroom. Postsecondary administrators and faculty are mistaking the new media for the old; in other words, the convention of using traditional classroom methods in the online space is failing students.

I will only use one unnamed university as an example, but because I have worked in administrative capacities for quite a while at this university, I know that they took their cues from other postsecondary institutions (it is common practice to take what works elsewhere and integrate those practices into your institutional setting). I want to stress that this university and its faculty are not trying to hurt students; their intentions are good; however, the road to “somewhere” is paved with “something,” right? In any case, this university has a two tier system of online courses: for some courses, they use a video system called Panopto; for others, they simply upload lecture notes as PowerPoints or pdf files. Panopto is a platform that allows for moderate inclusion of interactive content into a recorded presentation (e.g. quizzes and surveys), but because most faculty and even technicians are not trained in proper editing techniques (or digital pedagogy), they do not use this system effectively. Pdf files or Powerpoints also offer mainly static content that elides contact and inclusivity. Digital courses must offer contact, collaboration, and interactivity.

Yes, Virginia, there is contact in online courses. Instructors can use a platform that supports interactive meetings (such as Skype’s new meeting function). I tried this application in a small class and the result was dynamic, but in my experience, the online meeting needs to be with 5 to 10 students at a time, tutorial-style. Digital courses that are interactive require small group teaching. Online teaching is not simply facilitating large numbers of students; it is an intensive form of teaching, which counters the idea that online courses can be offered to thousands of students at once. The idea that you can just upload a pile of content and let students figure it out is akin to throwing the ingredients to an eight course dinner on the table and telling your guests to figure it out.

The mistake is in the idea that the digital classroom must have the following: a lecture session, a discussion session, and a series of evaluative exercises, but does this set-up work in the online classroom? In my experience, only students who are a specific kind of learner succeed in this environment. I have little empirical evidence to back this idea up, but I can say with confidence that every classroom contains a variety of learning styles and learners. Thanks to the rise of accessibility, we now know that traditional models of learning fail many students more often than not (e.g. the lecture model does not work), so what is the solution? Faculty and administrators need to be encouraged to think about online spaces as interactive. Students really thrive, for example, when they can use Serious Games and social media to engage with each other — that’s what the digital space offers, an area to collaborate in real time. What doesn’t work is throwing a bunch of lectures up into an online learning space and expecting students to connect the dots passively, much like they are expected to do in a traditional classroom. That style of learning definitely does not work online (and I am not convinced it works in the face-to-face classroom either).

Edinburgh University recently completed a research project that challenges the doxa of online learning (such as the fallacy of “best practices”) and created this manifesto (which you can view as a video here). What if postsecondary institutions engaged this model rather than a cost-based model that follows the edicts of the traditional classroom? Maybe the practices of ethical online course should be used in the traditional classroom.