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Ed-Tech Policy Commentary

The Online Professional Seminar?

By Peter W. Cookson Jr. — September 19, 2001 7 min read

In the wake of the great e-commerce blowout trails its offspring, e-learning. We are told that e-learning is, in the language of tech-speak, the “killer application"—a $720 billion dollar business and a chance to revolutionize learning. Traditional education, now thought to be hopelessly passé by the e-evangelists, is damned as teacher-centric and boring. E-education, these enthusiasts claim, is learner-creative and exciting. Anytime, anywhere learning (click) will replace “this time, this place” (brick) education any day now—if only more people got it.

Most people still like to learn from and with other people. Face-to-face still has its charms.

Ah, here is the rub in e-education: Most people still like to learn from and with other people. Face-to-face still has its charms and, of course, any of us who has been fortunate enough to experience a great teacher, knows that real learning, the kind that lights our cranial fires, is social not asocial or anti-social. Our brains are literally shaped by social interaction.

Education means to draw out, not to put in. Unfortunately, most of e-learning not only subscribes to the putting-in model, but also conflates training with education. Training is useful in learning a skill; education is essential for thinking.

Thus, most of the e-learning companies are approaching location-independent learning from the wrong end of the learning spectrum. They put text on the screen, “stream” some canned video, and ask the learner to click through multiple Web pages in search of packaged answers. Is it any wonder that most e-learning programs and companies end up on the e-business scrap heap? Not only is this type of learning boring, it is also ineffective. And this is a shame because the possibilities of the Internet are enormous.

The development of electronic networking may be a more powerful force than the creation of the printing press. It can reach people everywhere on the planet and connect them in a way that is truly revolutionary. The Internet can do what no government or company can do: It can create a global society where knowledge can be used to meet urgent needs.

We need to think of e-learning as an extension of ‘r-learning’—real learning—and blend the two into a learning environment that is based on inquiry, discovery, and experimentation.

Sometimes e-evangelists speak of the teacher as an obstacle to be overcome: “No more sage on the stage, now guides on the side.” I would argue that this position is exactly wrong. Teachers inspire, and if they are talented and supported, can spark the social excitement that is the basis of real learning. We need to think of e-learning as an extension of “r-learning"—real learning—and blend the two into a learning environment that is based on inquiry, discovery, and experimentation. We learn by doing, and we learn by making mistakes. Whether it is skill-building or education, learning is a process of trial and error; the more complex and abstract the learning goal, the more time and mental space are needed to make errors. All discoveries are the result of hundreds of errors.

If e-learning were truly a discovery environment, it would revolutionize the field of professional development, radically altering the passive, one-shot model we now employ to make it, instead, a model of continuous discovery and professional growth.

What would be the elements of this model? How could we elevate teaching in the new learning environment? Here are some thoughts:

  • Principle 1: We learn by doing. From John Dewey to the present, cognitive theory and classroom practice tell us that we are active learners. The e-evangelists are right about this: The bureaucratic, seat-time model of education is the opposite of active learning. In an era when performance can trump credentials in importance, our model for learning must be active and dynamic.

This is where the blending of on-site and on-time learning can be extraordinarily exciting. By combining face-to-face seminars and symposiums with online simulations, students will be able to actually “play” with materials, pose increasingly important and analytic questions, and avoid canned answers. This approach calls for a highly interactive, discovery-based Internet environment. Drawing on game theory and case studies, the discovery-based online curriculum promises to be genuinely learner-centered, in the sense that a Socratic dialogue is learner-centered.

  • Principle 2: Learning requires social interaction. One of the most disconcerting sights of modern life is to witness whole offices where everybody is staring at a computer screen—the faint blue glow replacing the warmer hues of human contact, humor, and feeling.

I’m sure that attachment theorists in the coming era (if there are any) will write earnest treatises about the symbiotic relationship between the television monitor and the human heart. But let’s hope there are a few humanists left who believe genuine attachment is always heart to heart. A vast literature gives empirical support to the position that learning is social. We learn from others in a thousand large and small ways, including body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. We learn more by seeing ourselves in the reflection of others than by seeing ourselves in the reflection of ourselves. Looking into the mirror may help introspection and self-analysis, but if taken to excess, it runs the risk of solipsism and self-absorption.

After all, the end goal of education is transcendence and transformation. A fully educated mind is a mind-within-the-world, not a mind-within-the-mind. To make this outward journey, we need others to encourage us, to correct us, and to reward us. One does not grow intellectually in a knowledge vacuum; the garden of knowledge is teeming with life, paradox, and struggle.

Thus, the online part of a genuine learning environment must include plenty of room for continuous dialogue, interaction, and free-flowing argumentation. We should avoid “chat rooms” (really, gossip rooms) and create seminar rooms where the conversation is guided by the quest for truth.

  • Principle 3: Learning requires structure. One of the key misperceptions of many of the e-evangelists is that learning is really an accumulation process in which random facts are collected. When one has collected enough random facts, one is educated. In this view, television quiz shows are great marvels of education. Random fact collection is to education as nails are to building a house. Nails are necessary, but if you don’t know where to hammer them in, they are useless, even dangerous, in constructing a house. We learn when facts are put into meaningful relationships to each other. This is the exciting part of learning: discovery, unexpected patterns, and relationships.

This principle has significant implications for online learning. Access to the World Wide Web is like immediate access to a worldwide library, although the Internet library also includes comics and pornography. Roaming aimlessly through a library does not produce knowledge. The use of the Internet for program development means creating an environment where there is a balance between interest and curriculum structure.

Virtual education is a misnomer—one cannot become a mind-within-the-world without the help of real people, real struggle, and real discovery.

Structure does not imply rigidity or excessive control; it suggests direction and purpose. Like any classroom, the online classroom needs to be safe, purposeful, and have clearly defined objectives and goals. This does not mean that the online classroom is all about “drill and kill"—just the opposite. It means that the teacher must imaginatively lead students in certain directions, while allowing for different learning styles and individual interests. When you think about it, that is what all good teachers do.

  • Principle 4: Learning is personal. If humans were machines, then learning could be batch-processed and impersonally administered. But, alas, for some in the standardization movement, humans are contrary, difficult, and resist authority. Repression is not the same as expression. We may try to regiment learning, but individuals rebel.

Much of what I see in the way of professional development on the Web is impersonal and machine-like (and, by the way, having a cute icon to follow is not what I mean by personal). The very expression “clicking through” has a mechanical flavor that reminds one more of mindlessness than mindfulness.

Online learning ought to be as personal as a seminar; the site you visit really ought to be the home to which you return. Emotional safety and groundedness are the signatures of a healthy learning environment. With the arrival of the broadband and interactive television, our chances of creating a personal online learning environment are enhanced.

We as educators ought to embrace online learning and develop a new literacy. We should insist that professional development is both professional and developmental. And we should be careful to use online learning to enhance face-to-face learningand not accept glib sales pitches about a virtual learning miracle that will mysteriously eliminate people.

Virtual education is a misnomer—one cannot become a mind-within-the-world without the help of real people, real struggle, and real discovery.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He serves as the president of TCinnovations and has been assigned by Teachers College to create professional programs for teachers around the country.


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