Seeing is believing…what does online learning ‘look’ like?

Seeing is believing – after reading the essay, No Back Row which describes how a long-time professor of higher-ed  had an ‘aha’ moment when he observed first-hand how an online MBA program actually worked, I also had my own ‘aha’ moment… perhaps one of the key barriers to educators’ resistance to online education is the lack of visualization, in other words, not being able to ‘see’ what an online program actually ‘looks’ like?  Perhaps. Below are some thoughts based upon the essay in which the author acknowledged [after visualizing an online program]  that online learning is a legitimate and viable alternative to face-to-face instruction.

“And I’m now convinced that what Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the “MBA@UNC” is about to do for higher education.” (Cohen, 2012)

The Visual Barrier
When I speak with educators about online learning [online courses for credit, MOOCs such as Coursera etc] who are not familiar with online learning either as a participant or instructor, I am likely to hear comments such as,  ‘I just don’t see how it’s better than face-to-face’ or ‘how can a computer teach’. Given that the majority of us, when considering a concept or idea draw upon previous experience or images to make sense of an idea  – it’s likely that those not familiar with online learning will visualize something similar to the images below…

And wonder how this [images above] can replace education done like this…

Making ‘Sense’ of Something New

This seems reasonable to me  – we make sense of new concepts or ideas by comparing to, or drawing upon, what we already know –  so it’s no surprise that those who have not ‘seen’ or experienced online learning find it challenging to see how learning can happen on a computer. It is an abstract concept until one ‘sees’ it.

Seeing is Believing but Quality counts
I encourage anyone who is unsure about the viability of online learning to read Mr. Cohen’s article [and/or to actually participate in an online course]. I appreciate his honesty, and his willingness to write about online education which he was pessimistic about until viewing the program MBA@UNC. Though, a key factor to this program’s appeal no doubt is its quality. It must be well designed, incorporating appropriate pedagogical methods to make such a positive impression on Mr Cohen. As I’ve written about in prior posts, online education is most successful when it is designed for the online format, when pedagogy is customized to a learner-centered approach, and when instructors establish a sense of presence in the course and interact with students.

Comment on Mr. Cohen’s essay…
I wrote the following comment in response to Cohen’s essay posted on Inside Higher Ed. I have shortened the full comment, [spared you reading the rather long winded comment] giving you the highlights.

An encouraging read – an essay any educator that is pessimistic about the future of education should read……When institutions try and mimic the face-to-face class experience online — use the same tools, the same assignments and the same lecture [recording of a live lecture], the results are usually poor. Online education is not about the computer, or the technology but is a tool [method] that delivers the education, and as Mr. Cohen observed, can be used effectively to create an intimate and thoughtful experience [in his example the small group discussion]….

From my experience as an educator and student, the key to successful online education is, 1) the course platform that uses the technology to effectively, 2) course design that creates rigorous and challenging  learning and leverages the online environment (discussion forums, Skype, Google Docs etc. as collaboration tools), and 3) the course instructor that adapts his or her teaching to the online environment, and creates a sense of presence and community in the virtual classroom.Thanks Mr. Cohen for the thoughtful essay.
Resources:
No Back Row, Steven Cohen, Inside Higher Ed

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