Thursday, 25 October 2012

More than Rejecting the Classroom Metaphor

I am taking a little time with the article and event, because I think it illustrates the very natural way that folks engage in education. When provided the opportunity to use new tools to address old problems they eliminate unnecessary baggage and structures.  In addition, it triggered some of my initial reactions to online learning from when I taught my first online course in 1995.

Stephanie Rudat, and Christopher Neu's tidy and smart little blog posting in the Huff Posting Impact, USAID's Eviction From Russia: An Opportunity for Online Learning as E-Development says it all and the pattern is recognizable. Whenever online learning is first introduced as a way of addressing educational need that has historically been served by traditional in-person teaching, it is simply assumed that online cannot possibly be as good as face-to-face. This type of statement typically leads to a short list of other qualities that support its use under the circumstances.  In this case, its principal benefit is access -  and with USAID's recent eviction from Russia, access is a big deal.

I am not going to address the ejection of the USAID from Russia as a political event, which is not really relevant to what I found interesting. Instead, I would like to use this story as an opportunity to share an observation that seemingly online learning is intuitively framed rather broadly by those considering it from outside of the academy. For those looking at university education from the outside, the shift from thinking about "eLearning" to thinking more broadly about "online education" is effortless. And there is something about online education that conceptually extends far beyond the classroom metaphor, from which online learning received its DNA that for generations has left its mark on countless curricula and courses.

For example, in Rudat and Neu's article, they jump right to the potential of using technology to create dialogue by "amplifying local practitioner voices," which are propagated and reflected through a network of internal and external experts - the interactions and relationships shaping a community that itself serves as a principal tool for individual and institutional capacity building.  Now this is a pretty sophisticated way of re-framing "online learning" to reconceptualize traditional democracy building activities. I am impressed, but am left asking, how did the authors end-up there, when the authors started with,
The first objection to this approach is that online learning is a poor substitute for in-person experiences. To this objection, we can only say that you're right: online learning usually falls short of in-person engagements.
I am guessing that it is because the authors (probably) do not self-identify as online learning professionals and are not practicing in the academy. They equated online learning with online courses, and with a practical goal in mind, they very naturally dismiss the classroom metaphor in favor of a network. In doing so, they eliminate the fundamental limitations imposed by the classroom concept that exists no matter how virtual we make the classroom.

As a practical matter, the conceptual decoupling of education from the classroom is probably critically important to attaining the demonstrable "learning outcomes" desired by a foreign aid organization.  In response to USAID's ejection from Russia, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland reinforced the agency's commitment "... to support(ing) democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society..."  Intuitively we know that these are the types of commitments achieved by relationship building, communication, and action, which are not methods used and outcomes normally achieved in a classroom.

Buried here in an article that is about the promise of e-diplomacy, is an extension of a recognizable pattern. It plays out as follows: online learning is not as good as in-person experience, but it is more accessible and less expensive.  This pattern is an intellectual cul de sac many have lived with or argued over for many years. The authors moved past their problem by thinking about technology as a way to catalyze communities, that engage actively in communication and learning (teaching), inquiry and discovery about local contexts (research), and capacity building (service). I think that it is important to note that the activities and outcomes described in the posting are not about information transfer or simple knowledge acquisition, which may be best done in the physical or virtual classroom - straight-up or flipped. They are about building conditions for the practice of a variety of arts and habits that support formation of civic capacity, democracy building, and the practice of human rights.

I do believe that there are real needs that are best met through traditional "classroom-conceived" online learning, which has become the state of the art against which we benchmark. I also believe that we have a lot of opportunity to advance the art through incremental improvements in practice. The recent explosion of MOOCs is evidence of extending the classroom model, but not fundamentally changing it. I am guessing though that our major educational advancements will be through a different type of online education, which may be difficult to recognize as something separate from the way we naturally understand and solve problems. So, where is this happening now, how can we better recognize it, and who is most likely to embrace and practice a new art in education?

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