This is from 2012 | 8 minute read

Problems With Online Learning

I've had a lot of people ask me why Austin Center for Design doesn't offer online courses. The short answer is because I don't think online learning is effective.

Here's a generally accepted view of education: A professor has knowledge, and is going to give it to students. This is how many fields are taught; this is how I attempted to learn statistics. I sat in a large room, and a professor stood in the front, and talked at us. The educational environment was optimized round this form of exchange—for the movement of content from one person to a mass number of people. In fact, all of the supporting structures were created to aid in the idea of mass content movement. The TAs taught "recitation" sections, in order to reiterate what the professor said but in smaller groups. The multiple-choice assessment was used to judge effectiveness across hundreds of people. It's a machine approach to education, one where the goal is efficient knowledge transfer.

There's another approach to learning, one that I subscribe to. In this version of education, the professor has had experiences of a certain style, and is going to try to help students encounter experiences of a similar style. And, through various activities and conversations, students will reflect on their own experiences together, gaining a form of "meta education", or education about the education. The professor has knowledge, but there's no expectation that they will "give" the knowledge to students. Instead, by having experiences with shared attributes, students will develop the knowledge on their own, and will therefore have a more associative and deep meaningful relationship with that knowledge. They will understand the context of the knowledge, and what's more, they will have experiential hooks into the knowledge: richer neural pathways through which they can retrieve that knowledge later.

In design, experiential learning is critical. There is no specific subject matter of design other than design process, method, history and theory. I may not know anything about a students' design topic—say, poverty in Austin or Texas organic farming—and so I can't offer any assistance on the particulars. But because I've experienced design problems that have a similar form, and because I've experienced the cadence and approach of creating various services or products, I can structure learning opportunities that anticipate certain styles of outcome. In a sense, I can create experience frameworks for learning, with a strong degree of confidence that a student will find their way to a design solution that's appropriate.

All of this is a backdrop upon which I view the question of online learning. Online learning is optimized around knowledge transfer. It doesn't have to be, and there will be a future where the internet provides a cohesive set of experiential learning tools. But right now, the tools massively constrain the type of education that can occur.

These are just some of the problems I've encountered with online learning (both as a student and teacher), related to this idea of knowledge transfer as compared to experiential problem solving.

The student receives Immediate quantitative responses but delayed qualitative responses (or none at all). Because of the perceived convenience of automated grading, online learning management tools seem to lead educators towards multiple choice assessment. The student receives their numeric grade immediately after completing a task or exercise, which seems like a good idea: instant feedback reinforces behavior. But because of the immediacy of a succinct response, it seems that educators don't feel it necessary to provide a richer, more qualitative response. The student may then never gain an understanding about their problem solving or learning strategy, greatly reducing their ability to form a causal relationship between their actions and their results. They are left knowing how they did, but not why, and so they'll have no real indication of how to improve. This form of quant-driven, multiple-choice assessment is a testing mechanism that's a result of a knowledge-transfer precedent in education.

There is no immediate, in-situ response; there is no "talk-back" between the student, the teacher, and the subject matter. When working through a problem in real-time, the content acts as the mediator between teacher and student. The educator may point at a piece of content, offer a meta discussion about it, and then relate it to another piece of content or to a personal experience. In creative fields, the teacher may actually do some of the work in front of the student, so they can see a new drawing, idea, or concept emerge in front of them. This is lost online. There is no real-time canvas of interactivity, there is no relating a problem to an anecdote.

Educational forums seem to foster shallow discussion. There are many great examples of online forums on the internet with rich, moderated discussion. Participants are there voluntarily, and post when they have something to say. While many online programs attempt a form of interactivity between students through similar message boards or scheduled chats, the substance of the conversation is thin. When I've asked students about this, they describe a sense of posting obligation: that they may have a certain number of forum posts that are required, and so they engage simply to check off a box or receive credit.

There's little room for Socratic learning. My Socratic approach is one where I build on (and repeat) what a student has said in order to get them to say more about it or to get another student to respond. This back and forth occurs extremely quickly. While this can be replicated in typed chat, it typically isn't (probably in part because students can't type that fast), and when it's attempted via webcam, the latency of most consumer internet connections introduces enough lag to be problematic.

There's no sense of emotional progress. The idea of "feeling like you are learning" is really, really, really important. It's entirely subjective, though, and is based on things like individualized attention, emotional reactions to individual people, and meaningful feedback in the context of errors or mistakes. And this feeling comes through discussion, and is nuanced: it's not algorithmic. I have conversations with my students, and we walk around the block, and we drink a beer, and we talk about our feelings. It's therapy, more or less, and it's hard to understand that it matters. I have yet to see an equivalent in online learning tools.

There is a lack of peer to peer learning. In creative fields, seeing your peers making progress serves both as an instructional tool and as a motivator. It provides a point of reference to approach and to quality, and reinforces the idea of craftsmanship. There is no equivalent form of "next-desk" style learning in online learning packages, where students can peek at the work of their peers in an informal and non-confrontational setting.

Asynchronous learning drives a non-standard learning timeline. Online learning provides the ability for students to progress through a class based on their own schedule, and this is a large attraction for students. But it means that students in a class don't share a common reference point during a discussion or conversation; they aren't focused on any given subject matter at a unified time. A great deal of rich learning occurs by comparing and contrasting approaches and results from multiple students at once. If the students aren't encountering subject matter at the same time, it becomes difficult to offer these comparisons in a meaningful way.

In addition to these core stylistic issues as related to knowledge-transfer vs. experiential learning, there are also more pragmatic problems that I see with learning in an online environment:

Online Distractions. My students are, generally, a product of a digital generation (as am I, to some degree), and in class, they have laptops open with Facebook and Twitter. But because I can lock their gaze and see their faces, and because of existing social norms concerning eye contact in an education setting, and because our classes are small enough that I can literally see their screens, they typically refrain from full-on use of these tools during class. There are no such social norms for online education, and from my experiences observing students using online tools in action, it's clear that the actual educational content takes second place to the social tools.

Brittle technology. The more advanced forms of online learning—those that involve multiple webcams and group chat, or canvas-based approaches for free-form whiteboard-style drawing—simply don't work well. There are compatibility issues. There are bandwidth issues. There are latency problems, or syncing problems, or plug-in problems, or browser problems. The advanced technology brings advanced problems, making it extraordinarily time consuming to perform even simple activities.

Until an online tool manages to alleviate some of the above concerns, I'll continue to offer my program exclusively in a face-to-face environment. An evolution of online tools will happen, no doubt about it. But it hasn't happened yet. For all the hype of Khan Academy, it still falls short in terms of collaboration, free-form expression, peer to peer learning, and complex problem solving. It's serving a niche for rote-based fact dissemination, allowing us to eliminate most basic introductory courses (and I'm all for getting rid of the giant, anonymous, teacher-doesn't-want-to-be-there, taught-by-graduate-students courses at most universities). But there's so much more we can do. Presently, all of the component parts of online education are lacking: camera hardware, network latency, software, pedagogy, and so-on. The internet is a vehicle for exponential reach; it amplifies things. Right now, online learning is amplifying bad educational practice. It's making it easier for people not to learn. I feel education is the way out of the various social, financial, political, and economic messes facing our country, and that it's too important to do wrong.

Originally posted on Mon, 18 Jun 2012

Want to read some more? Try Online Learning, Part II: Designing Experiences.