In March 2021, I was an online guest participant in an Economics class. My role was to listen to presentations given by two teams of students and ask challenging questions at the end of each presentation. It was not a new role, as I had participated in this project in the past, but had attended the class in person. Most interesting was that I had never questioned the format of the class or the logistics of my role during previous meetings. Somehow, being remote stimulated all of the possibilities that might have made the class provide students with better feedback. Why did the delivery mechanism for an online synchronous class meeting trigger a stronger response than the more traditional setting when I sat in the back of the classroom?
I was suddenly aware of elapsed time, for example. Instead of spending 90 minutes in front of a screen, I might have reviewed a narrated slide presentation (recorded on Zoom) in advance, rewatched the sections I didn’t really understand, and formulated some great questions for the kids. That would have reduced the “class time” to 45 minutes on Zoom. Instead, I watched the presentations live with nervous students speaking rapidly, slides with charts and data flying by, and struggling to jot down some semblance of challenging questions. My questions could not refer to specific data points because I didn’t remember on which slide they were or couldn’t study the charts closely enough. This session was not maximizing the benefits of the online delivery platform.
As the 2020-21 school year closes, we now understand that online education might play a much-enhanced role in student learning if it is used appropriately, and that appropriate use could potentially change the role of the teacher and student. The fundamental question becomes how one can employ online learning to maximize its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses, something that didn’t occur in the classroom I visited that day. We’ve now learned or read that asynchronous learning works well in an online setting while synchronous, collaborative learning is far more challenging. Technology experts have opined about the limitations of videoconferencing over the web. Audio and video latency can confuse participants, poor connections create interruptions at key moments, and it is difficult to keep track of who is speaking when there are 25 thumbnail windows on the screen, each with a small face.
I’ve had the privilege of being involved in the design of asynchronous coursework using learning management systems (LMS). Watching great designers maximize the potential of LMS tools, both for content acquisition and skills-building is breathtaking. Instructional videos are short, less than 10 minutes. They have clear takeaways, are annotated, and sometimes stop to ask questions. Learning pathways have forks in the road to serve students that need additional support for understanding. In some subjects, simulations replace the flat video to provide depth, allowing students to rotate images, connect objects, and recast physical or historical relationships by simulating cause and effect. Text can be read or listened to. Note-taking is embedded in the online materials and is often collaborative, providing students the opportunity to test their thinking before moving forward. Well-designed, well-implemented asynchronous learning can be very effective, but it does not represent the totality of the learning experience. Most of the online work is done individually and in isolation, and that runs counter to our basic needs.
For much of our existence, we have repeatedly demonstrated our tribal nature. That’s not an argument for eliminating individual learning, but it is an argument for balancing those experiences with others that support the communal experience. What does one mean by tribal nature? In his 2016 book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes:
Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.Sebastian Junger, Tribe (2016)
I’m not suggesting Junger’s extreme case, that if we are isolated in any way, we will develop PTSD (although during the pandemic, some people did develop trauma as a result of their isolation). We generally find comfort and security in working, playing, learning, problem-solving, and interacting together (recall Jim Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds). We cherish almost any form of affiliation with groups: classes, families, athletic teams, clubs, and religious congregations, to name several. When tribes work most effectively, the bonds that form are supported by collective social-emotional and equitable, inclusive learning. Thus, to provide students with a complete educational experience, an integrated learning experience, we need the face-to-face setting to focus on those cross-curricular and life skills that could not be developed in a personalized online learning setting. There is no online module that will help students develop empathy; they must interact with others and experiment with that interaction to grow so they will learn to empathize, even with the characters they meet in books read in an asynchronous setting. Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship between well-designed online and face-to-face programs.
Where does that leave a class discussion, you might ask? It’s a hybrid pedagogy, meaning it functions both in the asynchronous/synchronous online world and in the classroom. Some tools provide asynchronous written, audio, and video contributions. Then there are the popular Zoom-type synchronous online conversations as well. Enter face-to-face classroom discussions, either teacher-directed or of the Harkness type. Our tribal nature would suggest that the classroom option is the preferable setting. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about the online options yet. Some research is being developed, and most studies are inconclusive. From social media research, we know something about the creation of micro-communities online, but we also know that some of those communities are transformed into support groups that can be quite divisive. In short, the jury is still out regarding online discussion.
In 2013, I heard the director of Princeton University’s budding online MOOC program announce that a new student population would not have to come to campus in five years, but would still receive a “Princeton education.” Some in the audience feared that brick and mortar schools would no longer be necessary. Within two years, that prediction had self-destructed, and the university was forced to admit that presence on the Princeton campus, being part of the Princeton network or tribe, was why many students and families applied to the school. If one recasts the same narrative to our K-12 schools, it is becoming clear that online and face-to-face learning, both designed well, can work together to create the best possible learning experience for our students.