Learning and the Myth of “Being There”
In 1999, I taught my first online course to 20 nurse managers from the hospital across the street. We had nothing like Blackboard, Collaborate, ApprenNet or Tina the Avatar. In fact, the faculty designed the course to be a hybrid – meeting for half a day for four Saturdays in the term and doing the rest through a rigged email system and a discussion board.
One of the prevailing beliefs at the time was that learning was not as effective in the absence of social interaction, teacher to student and students to students. I recall worrying about how students could possibly learn if I did not have direct contact with them every week, even though they could ask me questions and have discussions online.
I fancied myself the Sage on the Stage – an entertaining teacher, who, with this new online format, was depriving the students of the benefit of my presence. My rude awakening on this issue came during the last in-person class when I realized that I had become the Guide on the Side.
After final papers were distributed and discussed, I asked the students to offer advice on how to improve the course. There were the few usual comments on the worth of the book, the number and nature of assignments and then came THE question: “Is it is really necessary to meet in person? Many of us believe that we could more than complete the objectives of the course totally online.”
I probed a little further. What about getting to know one another? What about access to the teacher? What about the social interaction and live discussion? What followed was a litany of all of the reasons that none of my issues mattered.
- Online students and teachers can form strong social bonds with one another and often do. However, forming social bonds is not a pre-requisite for learning the concepts and content in most courses.
- Students, who are natural introverts and sometimes feel intimidated by classroom competition, prefer the anonymity of the online format and blossom in discussion boards or synchronous media, such as Collaborate. Learning online creates a respectful environment for the student who needs to think before speaking out in class.
- Archived discussion boards and synchronous sessions can be revisited and reconsidered throughout the course. Classroom discussion is like air; it dissipates the moment it is spoken.
- It is easy to zone out in an in-person class or even nap in the back of the room. Online learning promotes student engagement and highlights, early on, student disengagement, as long at the teacher is monitoring participation.
- As one student said, “Remember the telephone! I have called the teacher several times during her posted office hours to get advice, perspective or clarification.” That was 1999, now there are office hours by Collaborate.
- “It is just not productive for me to spend four hours straight in class on a Saturday morning. I have learned to pace myself, to spend as much time as I need to master particular units in the course. Sometimes, half an hour is all I can take before drifting off, and at other times I get so absorbed in my online assignments that I lose track of time.” This student’s insights address the pace and style of learning that is highly individual and easily accommodated in an online format.
I was convinced. I brought this feedback to the faculty who redesigned the course to have one, in-person orientation session and the remainder of the course in an online format. The next time I taught the new version of the course in 2000, the students were just as engaged, the discussions were insightful and robust, and many of the written assignments were of publishable quality.
Lesson learned – being there, in person, is not a pre-requisite to effective learning. It was just a myth.
Gloria F. Donnelly, Ph.D., RN, FAAN is the Dean of Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions