Okay, I know Al already linked to this piece in the Chronicle about “online learning,” but I thought I’d follow up on it. In case you missed it, there’s an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “Video Lectures May Slightly Hurt Student Performance,” which reports on a published study that apparently compares learning outcomes between students who attended live lectures against those who watched the same lectures online. That study was titled “Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimate of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning,” which may explain why the Chronicle originally titled its write-up “Online Learning May Slightly Hurt Student Performance.”
Why did they change the title? Perhaps it has to do with all the subsequent reader comments to the Chronicle article pointing out the rather obvious fact that comparing outcomes associated with live lectures and video lectures has almost nothing whatsoever to do with “online learning” (I highly recommend reading the comments, which are quite entertaining). What the original study’s authors have “proven” (too generous a term without the scare quotes) is that students who watch lectures online don’t seem to get as much out of them as those who come to face-to-face lectures. Forgive me if, at this point, I can only say “well, duh.”
All this wouldn’t be a big deal if the study’s authors — along with the Chronicle — weren’t so obviously baiting the exact kind of moral panic over technology I alluded to in an earlier post. It’s more technological determinism, as if the medium of lecture delivery were the most salient factor. I might read the results differently. Perhaps the stultifying effects of having to listen passively to a lecture are merely amplified by having to listen to that lecture online. Or perhaps those who had to listen to the lectures online did what any of us might have done, which is open up Facebook and read our friends’ status updates while the lecture droned on in the background.
My point is that bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy, and we may find that certain kinds of bad pedagogy are exacerbated by migration into an online environment. Lecture has its place in the instructional toolbox, but it’s problematic as a primary mode of instruction, especially if it’s underwritten by an obsession with “content coverage.” Good online teaching looks like any kind of good teaching, in that it follows a few basic principles. In some ways, it may sometimes be a challenge to follow those principles as we adopt new technologies, but it may also present an opportunity to abandon outdated pedagogies and embrace more effective ones.