Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why is education so text-based?

Text by pippoapg, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  pippoapg

There are hundreds of tools on the net today that enable voice and video communication. Laptops and mobiles have built-in cameras and microphones to make such communication as easy as possible. Why then is the overwhelming majority of all communication in online courses text-based? The written word has always been the hard currency of the academic world and we seem reluctant to give voice and video equal status even if fluency in these areas is of increasing importance in the modern workplace.

A new report on the digital status of Norwegian higher education (only available in Norwegian I'm afraid, Digital tilstand i høyere utdanning 2011) reports that while students' use of social media for interaction and reflection has increased the same trend cannot be seen among faculty. Tools that reinforce traditional classroom teaching are the most popular (PowerPoint, e-mail, learning management systems) and very little use is made of tools that allow reflection, discussion and collaboration, even if they are often embedded into the learning management systems. At the same time most teachers would agree that reflection, discussion and collaboration are exactly the activities they want to encourage students to do. So why not let them talk and show themselves on video?

This is the main point of an article by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Are Online Students Hiding Behind Text?, where she describes using a simple but highly effective tool called VoiceThread to encourage students to express themselves orally. With VoiceThread you can set up an asynchronous discussion thread where students and teacher can see and hear each other, thus helping to reduce the distance factor in online education. The ability to present and argue a case needs constant practice and is largely ignored, especially in online learning. In the past we didn't have the tools or the bandwidth to allow students to use video as a means of expression but today there is no excuse. However we (and students) hide behind our texts as if that was our only means of communication.

My question to you, as an educator, is "Should all online students consistently be expected to participate using voice or video?" And if not, why? What have we to lose? Sharing ideas, engaging in large and small group discussions, and doing presentations are all regular components of face-to-face learning and I'd imagine the thought of removing all of these verbal activities from offline college classes would rile up some concerns. So, why is it that we aren't focusing more on the integration of voice into a students' online learning experience?

Michelle first offered her students the choice of contributing by text, voice or video and not surprisingly they mostly opted for text but after testing VoiceThread a few times together with plenty encouragement they found it a powerful learning experience and a valuable enhancement to the online course. Writing is still a vital skill and will probably always be the preferred medium of academic discourse but it's time we also recognized the value of spoken communication and the power of video.

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