Part 1: How America learned to learn online
Born at the tail end of Generation X, mine was the last to fully understand education as a face-to-face experience. By the time I started my undergraduate work in the mid-1990s (five years after the official start of the Internet) the concept of ‘distance-learning’ was already advancing exponentially in terms of technology and application. Utilized initially at the high school and vocational level, it used closed-circuit broadcasting to enable individuals to observe traditional classroom environments without having to be there. Its’ value lay in the ability to increase the size of a class/audience regardless of the physical distance between prospective students. Its’ limitations lay primarily in the inability of those distance learners to participate in learning activities fully and in real-time.
But by the beginning of the new millennium, those limitations had been largely overcome and ‘distance learning’ was transformed into ‘online education’. Rather than simply a point of access, “online education is defined as a form of distance education that uses computers and the Internet as the delivery mechanism, with at least 80% of the course content delivered online.” The transformation of education through the integration of online information sources with delivery and instruction took place at lightning speed. Overnight, every major educational institution in the country began experimenting with online education trying to grasp both its economic and educational potential for the future. What is often forgotten about this time is that for every Phoenix University there were dozens of failed online schools, some sponsored by the most prestigious universities in the country.
The advancement of online education in the last three decades has been driven by three primary considerations: technology, pedagogy, and digital socialization. I have been an instructor at every level of education from elementary to grad school over the last 25 years and during the entire time, the advancement of technology has always outpaced its use by educators. The lag has been shortened considerably over the last decade, especially as educators and academic institutions increasingly became the producers of their own education and online technologies. But with new advancements in augmented reality, biometrics, and virtual communication the lag may begin to increase again as private companies become the primary source for new education technologies.
Technology has been the petri dish within which online education has been incubated. And for all the successes driven by the increased access and use of information, it has most often been the inability to coordinate or translate traditional teaching pedagogies to the online education environment that explains the failed experiments. Very simply, “online education is a different medium for teaching and learning,” one that requires fundamental changes in the philosophies for both. From the teaching perspective, it requires a recognition of how many aspects of instruction were accomplished implicitly, through natural interactions with students, or with minimal required preparation beforehand. From the student perspective, online education further accentuates some of the most important considerations of the learning experience, both good and bad. The biggest source of difficulty for faculty and students, both then and now, is understanding that online education is not just a different lane on the same road you have always driven, it is an entirely different form of travel.
Both the use of technology and the development of new teaching philosophies have been conditioned by the pace and depth of America’s digital socialization. Digital technologies have transformed American culture, developing within each successive generation different frameworks of learning and understanding. Teachers and professors who still remember vividly tapping out their dissertations on a Corona typewriter must now teach students who have navigated the world on an iPad since the age of 2. The base assumption is that instructors simply need to learn the characteristics and capabilities of this new generation and adapt lessons accordingly. But that approach overlooks the tension between that assumption and some of the most important pillars of the American education system. Not only might an increased emphasis on online education lead to an increased widening of inequality in America, but it may also lead to a redefinition of what learning is.
Online learning has been around since the first day of the Internet, and in its various forms could be considered its primary and most essential use. Coronavirus has forced America and its education systems to adjust on the fly, transferring entire learning systems from the classroom to Zoom. With the country still not ready to even consider what recovery from COVID looks like, there is a national “get us through the ‘now’ and we will deal with the consequences later” approach to the transition. We have enough history however to indicate that there are real problems with online education. From cheating by students to unethical faculty, schools unable to meet basic higher education requirements to ‘clickbait’ degree programs, we must avoid hurting the very people the education system was meant to help, our kids. Much of America is the process of ‘re-learning how to learn’ under the weight of the greatest social upheaval since the Great Depression. But it is in moments of crises met with less than fully considered solutions that deeper long-term problems are born…
Dr Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of Political Science at Lincoln University in Missouri. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.