Why online education won’t change the world

Online learning isn’t for everyone. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have a place in the world today.

We are all living faster and connected lives, so having the flexibility of online learning is quite a feat of humanity!

However, I have been collecting data from my students about how was their Fall 2020 (it is based on observation and an ill-constructed questionnaire, but… here I wanted to share it anyway).

Fall 2020 was unique, to say the least. It was my first time teaching at the university level outside of graduate school and it was already all online. As a teacher I found myself being an instructor -an expert scaffolding knowledge and building courses, an IT person – troubleshooting Zoom issues and computer issues, and, somewhat, and entertainer – trying my best to keep student attention through visually rich lectures, videos, games, and puns!

For students, they were coming from a frustrating Fall 2020, where classes were haphazardly transferred to the online environment. Insecurity ruled. The trust between students and their universities is low, so the spirits aren’t high to begin Spring 2020.

Here’s my “data collection” from the beginning of this semester from the four classes I am teaching at Illinois State University. I asked the students

“How was fall 2020 for you?”

I had a total of 50 unique responses with the majority of students mentioning how tiring the past semester was. (Two people said “easy” but I think these were mistakes LOL, anyway)… I believe that tiring being chosen more than stressful is very telling, here’s why.

I got to thinking “what is one thing that has been taken away from everyone as we transitioned to online teaching?” The one response I could find was: The external environment – going to campus and having people around us pursuing the same goals.

Once we jumped into online teaching we removed the environment from the learning equation. We removed these external cues that let us know what we were doing and where we were going. Here’s an example:

You are a student taking 15 credits in a semester (that’s about 5 classes). When you get ready to go about your day, you grab your backpack and think “okay, today I have this one class and this one class so I need to take these books/tools to class.” Once you get to campus, you go to specific buildings and classrooms where the classes take place and these spaces further support the idea that you are somewhere to do something. You don’t have to actively think “I am here for this class,” after a while that automatically happens. However, when we move to an online environment where we sit at the same desk in front of the same computer we miss these external cues that helped us navigate our schedule without using our brain power.

So, my hypothesis is that by removing the external cues we have added a lot stress onto our brains arriving at the Cognitive Load Theory. We are overworking our brains just to situate ourselves into “what do we need to now” instead of the act of being somewhere give us the answers.

As humans, and at least for the past 100 years, we really didn’t have to do that. But now, inserted into an online environment you have to keep repeating it to yourself (even if unconsciously) “I am at this class now, later I have this other and I need to press this button for that.”

This is, of course, just one aspect of how online learning might overburden our brain capacities. We are social beings after all, so substituting the in-person connection to gray squares on Zoom isn’t cutting it.

If you are an adept of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory you probably know where I am trying to get at here. In his theory, Bandura postulates that people, behaviors, and environments interact to create learning. Therefore, if one of these parameters is removed from the equation, student learning is compromised.

I do know that online learning works for some people, however, it takes a lot of self-motivation to stick with an online course, especially if asynchronous, to finish it. But a synchronous course isn’t the answer either.

We need to exchange our experiences in person to be able to fully learn, but in the middle of a pandemic that’s hard to do. But, what I don’t want to happen after the pandemic is over is the thinking that since we were all, for the most part, successful in migrating to an online environment of learning that it should become the norm. We are able to continue our teaching, but at what cost?

Maybe I’m just nostalgic about being in front of the classroom and walking around to help students use illustrator, but I think we haven’t seen the bigger picture of the effects, and efficacy, of online teaching.

Published by Vitoria, no C

Instructional Assistant Professor at Illinois State University BFA in Graphic Design and New Art Media from the University of North Dakota MFA in Graphic Design from Iowa State University

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