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Online learning is an advanced form of learning which will propel top performers forward and leave bottom performers behind

December 11, 2012

Cathy Davidson, who is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University and a respected voice today on the influence of technology on education and learning, had an article published in The Chronicle yesterday entitled “Size Isn’t Everything: For academe’s future, think mash-ups not MOOC’s.” (Gosh, have we used variations of the phrase “size isn’t everything” enough?). If you want to read what she has to say, just click on the link above. I’m not going to summarize her here, but wanted to make a quick comment on one of her points. Here is a quote from the article:

The astonishing enrollment in MOOC’s in the past few years has taught us an important lesson about the powerful motivation people have to learn. From voluntary, participatory sites such as Yelp or Wikipedia, we also see that people love to contribute what they know and are willing to learn from one another (as Ito notes), not just from experts. That’s the paradigm shift that, as educators committed to the future well-being of our students, we need, fearlessly, to embrace.

This paragraph near the end of her article is important because it reveals an underlying conviction of Dr. Davidson and others like her regarding learning in online environments vs face-to-face contexts. They see the astonishing numbers, read one another’s in-depth analyses, and observe the excitement demonstrated by thousands of bloggers and micro-bloggers; and they conclude that learning is changing for people everywhere.

However, what I keep trying to tell these people is that they are preaching to the choir. I love online learning, as do most of the readers of websites like The Chronicle, Education Week, and Edutopia. But the overwhelming majority of undergraduate students today don’t even know what a MOOC is, nor do they care to know. They don’t use their digital devices for learning, and don’t have any idea how to analyze or synthesize multiple texts at the same time.

To put those unprepared students in an online learning environment is to build a house on a poor foundation. The foundation must be built eyeball to eyeball, with all of the tools that are inherent in meaty space. Very few people would seriously insist that the most important personal work (like say, a dating relationship) could be best accomplished in an online environment; yet the push toward online learning persists. For more on this, see my article.

In the middle of her article, Davidson refers to a statement made in Forbes magazine: “The U.S. is the only developed country to have high proportions of both top and bottom performers.” She knows this is a key that the Forbes article didn’t adequately address. Her response is to point out that wealth is the number one determinant in academic performance, and that free online education can help close this gap. I wish I was as optimistic as she. In fact, I believe the opposite. I believe online learning is destined to widen the gap between the top and bottom performers. I believe these experts are missing a very simple fact: learning in online environments is an advanced form of learning which will propel top performers forward and leave bottom performers behind.

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