You might have heard of the saying: “Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” While trying to sort my ideas and start this entry, my mind took me to this Chinese proverb and somehow, to me, it explains these different ways of instruction
I completed my education before the Internet was mainstream, therefore it happened in a very traditional, face to face style. After graduating university, I taught for 9 years at the secondary level. Reflecting back on that time, while I can identify a number of shortfalls, I still appreciate the results of face to face from both a student and teacher perspective. I believe that during traditional face to face instruction, while mainly focused on the transfer of information, students also learn more of soft and social skills like discipline. They understand the rules of engaging in a social setting and get an appreciation of subtleties in behaviour, and speech. This all happens in a very organic way.
Writing to me, requires more thinking. As an ESL speaker, if I have a question, I am more comfortable to just blurt it out than write it down in a public setting. I have to spend considerably higher amounts of time to proofread the written statement, ensuring the message is the intended one. The question in itself has to meet my cultural expectations in terms of complexity. I come from a culture where “saving face” is very important and asking “silly” questions is a sure way to lose credibility. Even after 20 years in Canada, I am still cognizant of this. During a face to face interaction, I could always take the easy way and have the instructor guess what I meant or use a joke to compensate for my lack of fluency at the time. The only way to convey the message when online is through written statements. Finding the balance between cultural differences when faced with a dilemma whether to ask or not to ask a question, is important for student and instructor. As a student there is more than just the learning. You need to be willing to put in extra effort, to come out of your cultural comfort zone and be open to change. As an online instructor, it may be easier to fall into a practice of making assumptions about the students, as there is little to no face to face interaction or opportunities to engage with them at a deeper level.
In the face to face model, the pace of learning is pre-defined and cannot be personalized or customized by neither the instructor nor the student. If the class is not homogeneous with students that have the same level of understanding and similar levels of knowledge, it can lead to frustration from both sides. At times, it can be motivating but, when a curriculum is structured as a building block: one chapter building on the other, it is very easy to lose students only because they needed a bit of extra time to spend on a module.
During the face to face interaction, the instructor has an easier time to evaluate students level of engagement, understanding, and interest and can provide timely feedback and clear roadblocks faster. However, the learning is very controlled and limited to the resources provided and their physical availability. Students are usually assessed based on the level of their participation in the in-class discussions and the exams or papers submitted. This approach advantages the extrovert that enjoys being in the spotlight, but disadvantages the introvert, who will take more time to ensure accuracy and relevance of the answers.
On the other hand, online learning offers more advantages. Learning can happen anytime, anywhere, at each student’s pace. Students not only choose their areas of interest, but can manage their learning process, how many hours to spend on each area, and so on. I particularly enjoy the discussion boards where students interact and share their practical experiences. This enriches the learning process but also offers new understanding on the importance of a concept in real life, where first I might not see it. The discussion forums and any student entries (web or vlogs, wiki’s and so on) required by the online course, bring a lot of value to instructors too. New perspectives, new ideas and new questions bring a renewed understanding of the ever-changing needs of people. The online courses are open to a very large, diverse and multicultural audience. Each student will process the information provided in the course through their cultural filters and will express their opinions based on their values and norms. Challenging? Absolutely! But also engaging, interesting and eye-opening to the world around us.
There is still a lot to be said about this topic. In my mind, there is no doubt that eLearning is a better way of engaging students in the learning process. It is a more hands on approach as the Internet provides a myriad of resources at our fingertips, and for all intended purposes, professor World W. Web is all we need to advance and grasp new ideas and new concepts. But, like anything that seems to be too good to be true, we need to use it intentionally to get the best out of it.