Direct Teacher/Student interactions in the digital classroom

Between Clark and Warnock’s advocacy for the digital classroom and my own experiences, counting iLearn, Elluminate, etc., I must say that I’m totally convinced of the utilitarian benefits and think we should all switch immediately. There’s just one problem: that last clause was sarcastic. Here, let’s try it again: “I must say that I’m TOTALLY convinced of the utilitarian benefits, and think we should ALL switch IMMEDIATELY.” Catch the sarcasm that time? It’s ok if you didn’t; you’re not alone.

Embodied in that sarcasm is my overall issue with the digital classroom; while it offers many obvious benefits in both education and cost, it also has significant problems in terms of direct human interaction. First and foremost is the communication problem inherent in text-only conversation. Many studies have purported to tell how much of our communication occurs through non-verbal channels. One which said that only 7% of the message is carried by words is exaggerated by most who reference it, but even follow-up studies with more robust methodologies still state that nonverbal cues are somewhere between 20% and 80% of the message when we talk to each other.

While that’s a pretty big range, it is still helpful in that it’s very clearly not zero. The above sarcasm demonstration is just one small example in a very big problem. Even the perennially sarcastic RFC guidelines warn that sarcasm in text form “doesn’t travel well.” It’s taken us nearly 50 years of AI research to teach a computer to understand sarcasm sometimes, and if we can’t even expect a computer to always understand the intent of a message in text, how can we expect students to do better?

This simple problem has knock-on effects: studies have shown that if the primary mode of communication is text-only, authority figures appear more intimidating. For teachers and students alike, dealing with another human through text alone dehumanizes them. With students already in a position where they must appeal to an authority figure – say they’re behind on homework, or not understanding a key concept – might this additional hurdle of having to do so through a digital-only medium with all the potential for misunderstanding that brings be the straw the breaks the student’s back?

One final example: a longitudinal study once showed that after you normalize everything else about students, including their socioeconomic class, race, family history, literacy, grades in high school, and so on, after correcting for all those factors, the biggest single difference between college freshmen who graduated and college freshmen who dropped out was a single interaction with a teacher, usually outside of class. It could be office hours, or a brief chat before or after class, or even a chance meeting on campus between classes. If we remove the teacher and the student from sharing a campus – or even sharing a zip code – how will they have these interactions that save college careers? And if they don’t have them, is the digital classroom with all the benefits and savings worth all the students who might have had a degree if we hadn’t economized?

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