Online learning: revolution or evolution?

Online learning: revolution or evolution?


These are exciting—even heady—times for those of us involving in online learning.
It’s clear now that the debate over the value of e-learning is over: and no one can credibly argue that this form of instruction isn’t effective for students and learners.
There’s been the explicit endorsement of online learning by Stanford, Harvard, and MIT as they have announced plans for the accelerated development of online programs and for offering access outside of the academy.
Then there’s the recent research from Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit think tank focused on technology and education, that supports the effectiveness of online learning. According to the Boston Globe, the Ithaka study “compared two versions of an introductory statistics course, one taught face to face by professors and one mostly taught online with only an hour a week of face time. Researchers found students fared equally well in both formats on every measure of learning. The only difference was that the online group appeared to learn faster.”
(Click to read the full Ithaka S+R report, “Interactive Learning at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials.”)
Evolution, not revolution
But despite these promising developments, we believe that it will be evolution, not revolution, in the adoption of online learning in all sectors—higher education, corporate, and other organizations.
First, we know that face-to-face training and education can represent a very effective ways to teach and learn. Some kinds of learning work well online—and some don’t. When the human connection matters online has limitations: small group work, classroom discussion, Socratic question-and-answer sessions, case study exploration, and a host of other learning moments are better suited for traditional “in-the-physical-moment” exchanges.
This isn’t to rule out that this learner-teacher interaction may at some point migrate to online. At some point technology will, no doubt, allow us to emulate this more personal connection at a distance. Cisco, for example, is developing virtual products that can make you feel as if you are in the same room as other participants who may be half-way across the globe. (For more on Cisco’s TelePresence technology, click here.)
For now, however, much of education will involve blending learning—a mix of online and face-to-face. Many instructors will move to what can be called the Kahn Academy model of learning—employing classroom sessions to explore content that has been accessed and mastered online (often in self-paced learning modules that include video and interactive elements.)
This approach leverages online learning content and makes it a powerful tool for instructors. Freed from being “sage on the stage,” they can become learning guides and coaches for their students—focusing on those areas that need more explication or discussion.
Not all learning will move to this model (nor should it), and some organizations will make the transformation at a faster pace than others.

A period of transition

We believe that the way people learn—and the mix of technology and forms of instruction—will be shaped by an evolutionary process over the next decade or so. This transition will take time and, despite breathless media reports, all learning will not suddenly shift from face-to-face classrooms to the Cloud.

It’s also likely, and somewhat ironic, that the value of the personal connection that teachers and students establish will be more valued during this transition. The desired outcome: We will discover what our wonderful new machines and what gifted humans do well, and develop the mix that spurs and sparks learning best.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders