Friday, June 22, 2007

Classroom v. Technology

Table from Zhang,D., Zhao, J.l., Zhou, L., and Nunamaker Jr., J.F. Can e-learning replace classroom learning? Communications of the ACM 47, 5 (May 2004), pg 75-79.

Warning: the link may not work outside of an academic institution.

I read Stephen Downes' musings on the relative advantages of technology vs. the classroom with great interest. Especially the reaction of his audience - since it mirrors the reaction I get every day when I talk about my plans for online training.

My personal learning preferences mirror Mr. Downes': give me the book / paper / powerpoint / movie / tutorial to work with in the comfort of my own home and on my own time. If I need to talk to someone or do things that must be done in a group - we can do the face-to-face thing if it is appropriate.

Many of my students don't feel the same way. Neither do my fellow instructors. I have always wondered why the classroom model continues to hold such sway, even when it is not the best solution for learning a particular topic.

Here are my half-baked thoughts on the matter:

Student Expectation - Adults expect a classroom experience with a "teacher" in front of the room telling them what to think / do. It doesn't seem like "real learning" if it's not.

Over the past 2 years, I've seen a slight change in this attitude with the incoming residents. These folks are about 24-25 years old and have been brought though an educational system that has at least some computer-based instruction. Many have taken online courses. Their first question to me, when they ask about training, is "Do you have any online tutorials?" I'm hoping this is a harbinger of at least some change in the expectation of what "learning" looks like.

Teacher Expectation - Standing in front of the classroom lends an automatic authority to the person standing there. Developing an online class requires letting go of some of that authority to subject-matter experts, tech-savvy developers, and, in the best cases, to the student. Who wants to give up that power?

I also think it may be a matter of personality. Many of the trainers and teachers I know are social folks who adore the give and take of the classroom. They feed off the energy of the crowd. They enjoy being on stage. The best pick up subtle cues from the body language and energy of the students - allowing them to adapt their material on the fly. Many of these trainers thrive on the instantaneous feedback.

Most forms of technology-based training do not allow the flex in timing or words or learning style that you have face-to-face. With classroom training, you can wing-it if you need to.

Another perceived disadvantage of technology-based training for the trainer/instructional designer - people can quickly analyze the strength (and weakness) of your instruction. The instructor is exposed. In the classroom, it's easy to get sloppy and get away with it. If you are entertaining, you can get away with murder.

Many classroom instructors won't give up that flexibility willingly.
Developing training materials (particularly online training materials) requires a certain level of discipline. Technology-based training (either synchronous or asynchronous) requires lengthier preparation. Testing the equipment, timing the delivery, checking for bugs in the tutorials, piloting the instruction.

The advantage (in my mind) to developing online materials, especially asynchronous ones - all training on that topic is the same. The information is the same. The delivery is the same. The quality of the instruction is not dependent upon the instructor's mood, or successes and failures in classroom management, or the personalities of the students in the class.

Anyone who's spent time in a classroom teaching the same information ad nauseum can tell you which classes went well, which didn't, and why (if they're honest).

I don't know about other instructors, but having stood in front of various classes over 11 years - I find the variation in experience between the different classes unsettling. I suspect the discomfort is a result of my introversion. I'd much rather hide out and develop training than deliver it. 11 years in and I still get stage fright...

The other advantage to online instruction, the student can adapt the pace of the training to their needs rather than the teacher having to adapt his or her delivery. Of course, the teacher can only adjust within the confines of the material they have to get through during that session. And we know how outside stakeholders love to pile on the information....

Responsibility - Mr. Downes linked to Stephen Sylvester's post arguing that students are less inclined to take responsibility for their learning than before.

My proposition is simple. Students no longer understand that education is their own responsibility. They have not arrived at this unfortunate conclusion alone. Student support mechanisms friends, parents, college administrators, college student support services, even sympathetic (emphasis on pathetic) faculty, American presidents have joined together to blame virtually everyone and everything else for students' failure to learn. It is a complicated process, often unconscious, always self-serving, and extremely damaging to intellectual freedom.

I have found that online asynchronous education requires a level of personal discipline that face-to-face does not. There is immediate accountability if you don't show up to class. You have to be more pro-active about asking questions and finding answers in the online environment. You have to have the discipline to do the work without someone watching all the time.

Many of my students don't want to take this responsibility. Interestingly, it seems that the more educated they are - the less they want to learn stuff for themselves. I sincerely wonder if our educational system, at all levels, actively beats natural curiosity and interest out of people. The more education, the more opportunity for beatings.....

Inertia - Change is messy and painful. If generations have done the same thing in the same way - it is much easier to keep doing it that way than it is to change practices. I see that every single day as medicine (the last bastion of paper) finally drags itself kicking and screaming into the information age.

As I've mentioned in a recent post, change is a process and you can't skip the steps. The edubloggers seem to be further ahead than most of their colleagues. These are the folks who see the vision of what can be. I have a feeling many teachers and trainers, if they are thinking about new educational technologies and theories at all, are still in phase 1 - "How do I get this thing to do what I am currently doing with the least amount of change on my part?"

Sadly, the revolutionaries among us have the inertia of generations of habit and unconscious resistance to overcome - on the individual, professional, and societal level.

After the experiences of this year, I still think that quiet subversion is the way to go. Work from within the system, quietly dig out the foundation, build new tunnels, make sure the damage is done before anyone notices.....


Mark Frank said...

I don't like these diagrams which encourage an either/or attitude. A good classroom session will often include periods of self-study/elearning. The best elearning programmes often include some kind of personal support - albeit not in the same room.

I find it more useful to think in terms of how much you want to control the learning context. In a classroom environment the training team typically has a lot of control of the context. That includes when is the learning taking place, preparation beforehand, physical environment,freedom from distractions, what is going to happen after the class is over and so on. In an e-learning or any kind of self-study environment the training team hands over the context to the learner. Some learners may find that very difficult, others (like you I think) thrive on it.

Karyn Romeis said...

"Adults expect a classroom experience with a "teacher" in front of the room telling them what to think / do. It doesn't seem like "real learning" if it's not."

This has been my experience, too - even among the staff of corporate training departments. Slightly less so when the department is referred to as "learning and development" rather than training, but quite often the difference turns out to be little more than surface deep.

"I still think that quiet subversion is the way to go. Work from within the system, quietly dig out the foundation, build new tunnels, make sure the damage is done before anyone notices....."

In my last job, this is exactly what I did. The MD was totally anti all this newfangled elearning nonsense for the rather conservatve IT-illiterate staff. They faltly refused to buy me any elearning authoring tools. So I did what you're doing - I took it underground. I used PowerPoint (of all things, but it worked) to create interactive nuggets and posted them within the public folders of the email application. By the time the MD realised what was going on, the helpdesk was steering users towards them and they were taking a lot of hits. He told me triumphantly, "You see, we don't need elearning, we need more things like this!" I have never had to work so hard to keep a straight face!