Online learning: Definitely possible

There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about online learning. Some people sing its praises without reservation. Others claim that it doesn’t work at all. I have successfully learned over the internet and I have successfully taught over the internet. It can work very well, but it requires a commitment on the part of the teacher and the learner that is not always present. In this series of posts I will discuss what has worked well and what hasn’t in my experience, specifically in teaching linguistics to undergraduate speech pathology majors.

Online learning is usually contrasted with an ideal classroom model where the students engage in two-way oral conversation, exercises and assessment with the instructor and each other, face to face in real time. In practice there are already deviations from this model: one-way lectures, independent and group exercises, asynchronous homeworks, take-home exams. The questions are really whether the synchronous or face-to-face aspects can be completely eliminated, and whether the internet can provide a suitable medium for instruction.

The first question was answered hundreds of years ago, when the first letter was exchanged between scholars. Since then people have learned a great deal from each other, via books and through the mail. My great-uncle Doc learned embalming through a correspondence course, and made a fortune as one of the few providers of Buddhist funerals in San Jose. So we know that people can learn without face-to-face, synchronous or two-way interaction with teachers.

What about the internet? People are learning a lot from each other over the internet. I’ve learned how to assemble a futon frame and play the cups over the internet. A lot of the core ideas about social science that inform my work today I learned in a single independent study course I took over email with Melissa Axelrod in 1999.

My most dramatic exposure to online learning was from 2003 through 2006. I read the book My Husband Betty, and discovered that the author, Helen Boyd, had an online message board for readers to discuss her book (set up by Betty herself). The message board would send me emails whenever someone posted, and I got drawn into a series of discussions with Helen and Betty, as well as Diane S. Frank, Caprice Bellefleur, Donna Levinsohn, Sarah Steiner and a number of other thoughtful, creative, knowledgeable people.

A lot of us knew a thing or two about gender and sexuality already, but Helen, having read widely and done lots of interviews on those topics, was our teacher, and would often start a discussion by posting a question or a link to an article. Sometimes the discussion would get heated, and eventually I was kicked off and banned. But during those three years I learned a ton, and I feel like I got a Master’s level education in gender politics. Of course, we didn’t pay Helen for this besides buying her books, so I’m glad she eventually got a full-time job teaching this stuff.

So yes, we can definitely learn things over the internet. But are official online courses an adequate substitute for – or even an improvement over – in-person college classes? I have serious doubts, and I’ll cover them in future posts.

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