Traditional classrooms get schooled by online education

Online education isn't the new kid on the block anymore. Like the student who teaches the master a thing or two, online learning has a few pedagogical tricks up its sleeve to teach the traditional classroom.


The best teachers keep learning

After years in the traditional classroom and working her way up to chair a department, Dee McDowell made a shift. She took a job teaching at an online school, and it's been nothing short of a learning experience for everyone concerned.

These days we live online. Social networking sites, news, video, streaming music, gaming -- they're all changing the way we interact with information, the way we communicate, and, by extension, the way we learn. An occasional online gamer, McDowell recalls an interesting bit of teaching that came from immersion in an online environment:

"I had a student who had to write a description of something in nature. He wasn't outdoorsy at all. He was an urban kid, from Vegas, but he played World of Warcraft. I asked him what level he was and told him to write about some hills I knew he'd come across in the game. It was one of the best descriptions I'd ever read from a student. I wouldn't have come to that idea, that help, as quickly in a traditional classroom."

When she first started teaching, this kind of interaction couldn't have happened; the technology simply wasn't there.

An education from teaching online

"My view of my students has broadened. I never paid as much attention to the impact media has on kids until now. Everything I do now, I connect to online media. My repertoire for helping students has expanded," says McDowell, and she's not alone. A recent study published in the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (jolt.merlot.org), "The Benefits of Online Teaching for Traditional Classroom Pedagogy: A Case Study for Improving Face," notes that one of the benefits of weaving online pedagogy into traditional classrooms is the "improved ability to create multiple strategies for the [...] clarification of misunderstandings. The experience of teaching online [...] provides additional arenas for the instructor to clarify misunderstandings in a forum in which all students can participate."

Using World of Warcraft to assist in a composition assignment is a perfect example of this, but the benefits of learning online go beyond that. When she's teaching specifically online, McDowell notes, "I can provide individualized feedback very quickly, something that's impossible in a traditional classroom. I can help or correct a student much more quickly than I'd even be able to identify the problem in a regular classroom."

Creating that forum for participation mentioned by the study isn't always easy online, though, which works well in some situations and not others. From McDowell:

"In terms of writing instruction, for example, it's much easier for students in the online environment to share their writing because they don't take criticism as personally. Because I'm more distant, they're more distant, which allows feedback to be more constructive. Interaction can be more difficult in the online environment for the same reason feedback is more constructive: that distance gets in the way."

McDowell compares encouraging interaction online to a sort of "disguised dictatorship. I have to force discussion, basically tell them 'you have to do this for a grade.' I do things to push buttons, provoke an emotional response, and I have to do that more often online than I do face-to-face." In a traditional classroom setting, however, she says all she has to do is walk by students and make a comment "that gets everyone riled up." This can change in large lecture halls, though, where the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching study notes "students can sit quietly for weeks, engaging little, if at all, with the instructor, the material, or their peers." Depending on the strategies used, online teaching can actually foster student engagement where they have no choice but to participate, according to the study.

Access to information: Blessing or curse?

The study mentions another lesson learned from teaching online: the "improved student learning due to the repetitive availability of course material, including practice problems and solutions." This improved access to materials levels the playing field in ways that traditional classrooms just can't. McDowell points out that students have immediate access whenever they want it. "My 16-year-old student who has a kid and job has the same access as kids on a more traditional schedule."

Constant availability of information online isn't always a great thing, though. "Because of teaching online, I'm hyper-aware of how student research has progressed," says McDowell. Seeing students in the traditional classroom and online both using any and all information they find has forced her to put "more emphasis on sifting through information. Just because it comes up in a Google search does not mean it's a reputable source."

Big picture: The future of education

A 2009 study from the U.S. Department of Education, "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," looked at online learning, face-to-face instruction and blends of the two. The study found that the most effective approach to online learning is blended instruction, which offers a compelling reason to design and implement combined approaches to learning. "When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so."

In the same way that online social networking has enhanced, not replaced, face-to-face interaction, online learning techniques are bringing a lot to the traditional classroom. As we continue to walk through the landscape of the Information Age, in particular as we continue to raise the next generation, McDowell reminds us that "we are preparing students for jobs that don't exist yet. We're preparing them for a future we can't even fathom."

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