Willingham: An online teaching surprise
By Daniel Willingham
The benefits of online schooling have always seemed obvious to me: A student can work at his or her own pace and desired time and will likely have a larger selection of courses from which to choose.
The chief drawback of online schooling was equally obvious to me: The teacher-student relationship, funneled through an Internet connection, would necessarily suffer. How could a teacher really get to know students when all of the interactions were via email and webcams?
That disadvantage was obvious to me until I mentioned it, in passing, to a friend who is an online teacher. Her experience was the just the opposite. She felt that she knew her students better in an online environment than she had in a bricks-and-mortar school.
I was intrigued enough that I tracked down five other online teachers at different grade levels, all of whom had taught in traditional schools. They all reported the same feelings.
Once they explained the reasons, it seemed not only plausible, but obvious.
First, their interactions with their students are very rarely about discipline or behavior.
For younger students, a caretaker (usually the mother) is on hand, and so the teacher does not need to do a lot of prompting to keep the child on task. For older children, the chief distraction of the classroom—other students—is not present. Teachers don’t have to nag students.
Second, although it is a virtual environment, the teacher is in the student’s home. The living room or family room is visible in the background during web chats. Siblings (or the family dog) wander in. And for younger children, mothers are usually present and so teachers get to know them much better than they ever did in a traditional classroom.
Third, teachers tell me that older students were more willing to share their personal lives than they were in a regular classroom. Perhaps because there are no classmates to overhear the conversations, teenagers seem less reluctant to open up.
One teacher actually suggested that the nature of online learning made students feel more responsible for their own progress, which led to greater openess.
They would more readily admit to not understanding something, for example. When they failed to complete an assignment, they would not only own up to it, they were more straightforward about the circumstances that led to the tardiness.
Now these are just the impressions of six teachers I spoke to. There are not, so far as I know, systematic studies that compare student-teacher relationships in online learning environments and in traditional classrooms.
We’d need better data before we could draw conclusions. But I was surprised by the consistency of the impressions of the teachers that I spoke to. If online learning is an inevitable part of the future landscape of American education, the student-teacher relationship may not be a drawback, and may even be a boon.
For more Willingham, click here.
| December 7, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Teachers | Tags: online learning, teachers
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