You Can Learn Everything Online Except for the Things You Can't

cookies (public domain, Wired magazine article from Rhett Allain that is big on metaphor (courses are the chocolate chips, the cookie is the on-campus experience) but very small on critical thinking. What it does highlight, though, is the failure of imagination lurking in much online and in-person learning discussion and literature, and I give credit to Allain for recognizing the obvious elephant in the room: that education is about learning to be, not about learning to do/learning stuff. As he puts it, “the whole cookie is about becoming more mature as a human. It’s about leveling up in the human race”. I couldn’t agree more. What we explicitly teach and what students actually learn are utterly different things, and our own little contributions are at best catalysts, at worst minor diversions. To simply compare the chocolate chips is a variant on the McNamara Fallacy, and well done to Allain for pointing this out in a mainstream publication. Where I profoundly disagree is the bizarre notion that colleges somehow bake better cookies, or that cookies are the only (or even the best) medium in which to embed chocolate chips.

Allain’s confusion is shared by a great many professional educators and educational researchers so, assuming he is not a professional researcher in the field, his ignorance is forgivable. If we are being persnickety, there is no such thing as either online or in-person learning: learning is something that is done by people (individually and collectively) and it resides in both people and the environments/objects they co-create and in which they live. It is not done online or in-person. It is done in the connections we make, in our heads and between one another. 

It is fair to observe that there are huge differences between online and on-campus learning. There is no doubt that removing people from the rest of the human race, and shoving a bunch of them who share an interest in learning together in one concentrated space does result in some interesting and useful side effects, and it does lead to a distinctive set of benefits. When done well (admittedly rarely) it gives people time to dream, time to explore, time to do nothing much apart from reflect, to discover, to connect, and to talk, to grow. For kids who have lived dependent lives in schools and their homes this can be a useful transition phase. So, yes, there are things learned in physical colleges that are not the same as things learned in other places. But that’s a trite truism. There are things learned in pubs, on planes, while swimming, in fields, etc, etc, etc that are distinctive too.

There is equally no doubt that those that don’t go to college can and do get at least the same diversity and richness in their learning experience: it’s just a different set of things that result from the complex interactions and engagements with where they happen to be and who they happen to know. Being less removed from the rest of life and the community has its own benefits, situating learning in different contexts, enabling richer connections between all aspects of human life. The online folk have (innately) much more control of their learning experience and, on the whole, therefore need to work harder to make the most of the environments they are in – it doesn’t come in a neat, self-contained, packaged box. But to suggest that it is any the less rich and meaningful is to do online learners a deep disservice. My own institution, Athabasca University, doesn’t have online learners. We just have learners, who live somewhere, in communities and in regions, among people and places that matter to them. We provide another (online) place to dwell but, unlike a traditional campus-based institution, it’s not an either/or alternative: our online place coexists with and extends into myriad other physical places, that reach back into it and enrich it as much as we reach out and enrich them. At least, that’s how it works when we do it right.

Analogies and metaphors can be useful jumping-off points for understanding things, and I’m OK with the cookie idea because it emphasizes the intimate relationship between teaching and learning. A more useful analogy, though, might be to compare and contrast online vs in-person learning with the experiences of those who watch movies on a home theatre via Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Mubi, etc vs those who watch movies at the cinema. There’s a great deal to be said for the cinema – the shared experience, the feeling of belonging to a crowd and, of course, the big benefits of being able to hang out with fellow movie-goers before and after the movie. There’s also the critical value of the rituals, and the simple power of the event. I love going to movie theatres. On the other hand, if you have a decent enough rig at home (technologies matter) there’s also a lot to be said for the control (stop when you need a break, rewind to catch things you missed or want to see again, adjust the volume to your needs, eat the food you want, drink what you wish, etc), the vast choice (tens of thousands of movies rather than a handful), the flexibility (when you want, with whom you want, at a pace to suit you), the focus (no coughing, chatting, phone-using idiots around you, etc), the diversity and range of social connectedness (from looking up reviews on IMDB to chatting about it on social media or with others in the room), and the comfort of watching movies at home.

Can one replace the other? Not really. Is one better than the other? It depends. I’m glad I don’t have to make a final binary choice in the matter, and I think that’s how we should think about online and in-person teaching. I don’t mean that a single institution should offer alternative online and in-person routes: that’s way too limiting, like only getting movies from one organization. I mean that education can and should be a distributed experience, chosen by the learners (with guidance if they wish), not tied to one place and one method of learning. Just as I can watch YouTube, Netflix, Mubi, Crave, Amazon Prime, Apple, or whatever, as well as go to any one of several movie theatres nearby (not to mention open-air movie events etc), so should I be able to choose my ways to learn.

Disclaimer: this is not a perfect metaphor by any means. Perhaps it would be fairer to compare watching a live play with watching streaming TV, and it certainly doesn’t begin to capture the significant differences in engagement, interaction, activity, and creativity involved in the educational processes compared with ‘passive’ watching of entertainment. But it’s still better than chocolate chip cookies.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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