Whose online is it anyway? (image source: dynamicrecruit.com)
(edited heavily two hours after I first wrote this article)
Oh I hate it! I really hate online education. It seems everyone is being forced to move in this direction. And so, inevitably, even I’m being made to do a course to learn its supposed benefits and learn how best to do online education. Grrrr!!
OK, with that rant out of the way, tone down time. :)
My “hate it” is an overstatement. Because I do value online education. Much of my own learning has shifted online. Even as I continue to learn (informally), I rely on online books/journals, online news, online discussions and even online Bibles. Almost all my learning requires the internet in some way or the other. So, you can see, “irony!”
So, let me rephrase. I don’t “hate” online education. I fear it. I fear the trend towards online education is not fully thought through by the many colleges that are using it (this is not a factual statement, only a gut feeling). I fear that many of the faculty who deliver online education are not trained in using its strengths. I fear that many of the students who want online education only want it for the sake of easy certification.
But as I think about it, nothing I’ve said above is the fault of the online medium. Poorly prepared faculty and poorly motivated students are problem that residential seminaries have been facing for ages.
So what’s the big deal? Why is it that I resist online education so much?
I think I resist online education because I fear/dislike bad education. Whether its online or not, “bad” education hurts the learner. For instance, “bad” education is when the teacher expects without empowering; when the teacher discounts the student’s prior learning, ignoring how much the student already knows and instead reinforces the notion that the student does not know, or does not know enough. In a similar way, by failing to recognise the true level where each student is at, the “bad” educator is unable to help (empower) the student to move from a “C” grade to a “B” grade, and instead makes them feel guilty for not meeting the “A” grade. For the “bad” educator, a “bad” student is always to blame.
The reason why all the “bad”s above are in quotes, is because I’m aware that my designation of “bad” is problematic, whether it applies to teachers or students. Motives are indiscernible. I am in no position to judge an educator, even as educators rarely understand their students. I remember, for instance, having some teachers in school who labelled me as good, when I was actually slacking in their class. And some teachers who labelled me bad, even though I was trying really hard to survive in their class. I felt that teachers had no real clue (or seemed to have no clue) what was really going on in me, and so I developed a kind of cynicism of learning. I tried to fool my teachers into believing something positive about me (controlling the narrative), rather than use the class time to engage in the pursuit of knowledge (an example was to ask questions at key moments in class, to look like an interested learner).
Sadly, to my loss and discredit, some of my teachers were excellent (from what I can remember). Many made an extra effort to reach out to me, to try to help me understand. Some were gracious to me and helped me pass, even when I didn’t deserve to. But I think I was too far gone down the path of educational-cynicism to recognise their sacrificial efforts.
Ironically, a transformation for me began in college when the “teacher” was removed from the equation, when there was no teacher to impress. Funnily, it was the Indian examination system, where all that matters is an external exam and not what a teacher thinks, that gave me a new desire to learn. All I had was the college library and an examination date, and I had to find my own motivation to study. I could have gone off the rails, so to speak, but by some miracle I didn’t. And instead, that’s when I had my biggest breakthrough. I became self-motivated and started learning, for learning sake.
And if what I’ve just written looks like an affirmation to self-directed learning of the online system, it’s not. My realisation then was that now that I understood what I was reading, I would have loved some more help. I would have loved guidance on whether I was on the right track. But when my designated teachers were not able to sense my change, and incapable of helping me improve, I had to rely on myself and somehow (through a miracle) I survived. Not everyone does. Not everyone will.
So when, through another miracle, I became a teacher, I decided to be the opposite of the “bad” teachers I remembered. I decided to be alert to the challenges of the educational system. I walked with my students to the library, much like one of my favourite teachers had done. I tried to be a guide, a helper. I attempted, even though the workload would make it difficult, to stand as much as is possible with students. I also tried to break institutional status quo’s (which I felt worked against learning). All this I tried to practice outside the classroom. But also inside the classroom. I tried to develop lesson plans after seeing what level each of the students were in, and try and adapt courses accordingly. In effect, every course I ever taught was different. I would have talks with the students before hand, to try and see what they needed, and meet those particular needs through classroom discussions. I would also be open to changing course directions mid-way, especially if something was not working right. It was an obsession, to help students. To understand them. To, as much as is possible, learn with them. This, I believed, was “good” education.
Sadly, while sometimes I succeeded, many times I failed. I found that when I adapted courses to meet student needs, students felt I was erratic. When I tried to move against status quo, it was said that I made students uncomfortable. When I tried to walk with students, and work with them, I was “over helping” and not allowing them to think for themselves. And when I still did all of the above, and more, I was stressed, over-worked, and feeling there was no point of “good” education because there was no visible positive result. With all good intentions, I was neither understanding the students, nor doing myself any favours.
I realised, then, that it was probably not that my previous teachers were bad. Perhaps it was the system that was problematic, a system that did not provide the teachers with adequate resources (time, training, space) to truly understand the students, or even work individually with each one. Similarly, it was not that all students were bad. But that some students were just too far down the road of cynicism to benefit from the efforts of teachers. And even the good teachers must have struggled with disappointment when students like me showed no sign of improvement.
All this above points to the failure (challenges) of on-campus education, but it makes me all the more guarded against online education. I feel that the effort that I have (and continue to) put into on-campus education must at least have some limited benefit. There is hope that somehow the hours spent with students is part of their holistic development. But with online education, even the little that has been possible, would no longer be possible. I would no longer be able to look into a student’s eyes, would not be able to see their body-language, would not be able to gauge where the student really is (regardless of where they think they are). I feel that adapting course work to suit students need would no longer be possible and instead, students would hide behind their online presence and easily manipulate their teachers.
Even as I type this longish note, I realise that my fear of online learning emerges from a sense of current disappointment with on-campus learning. I believe in good education, but I don’t think I am a successful educator.I feel I still need to improve in sensing what the students need and how to truly meet that need.
I also realise that if knowing a student better, and moulding content to suit her/his needs is good teaching, then I need to find out ways to do that online. Not everyone knows how to hide their “real” self online. There are clues, there are ways to determine what a student knows and what a student expects. The easiest way, perhaps, is to simply ask them. Not everyone is a closed book, not everyone is impossible to read. And importantly, if I’m not able to discern the signs of students online, then I’m the one that needs to change and grow/improve in that ability. If it’s important for me to understand who the students really are, then I should try to find out ways to determine that through the online medium. There is no absolute knowledge of a student possible, even if I was face to face (as I have demonstrated in my on-campus frustrations), so perhaps only “adequate” knowledge is possible online as well.
All this to say again, I doubt whether we can argue that “knowledge of a student” and “flexibility in course design” are sure ways to guarantee good learning. In my case, for instance, it was a terrible examination system that led to my biggest learning opportunity. Could then the online medium, still be a successful learning medium, so that true learning happens despite it or even because of it?
So, what began as hate note, has become a hesitant call to action. An assertion that we (I) must be willing to give online education a chance. So that what I think is important in “good”education, will be preserved (even if differently) through a different medium. After all, all learning is learning, all good education is good education, regardless of medium.
With all this said, here below is a link to a site that criticises online educators/education. I hope I will not fall into these traps: