Saturday, March 2, 2013

Challenges of the online classroom

Photo: MCGunner on Imgur
The photo on the right was taken by a medical student and has been spread widely on the net over the last few weeks. See for example an article in EdudemicIs this now a typical classroom?

CC BY Some rights reserved by Brett Jordan
It shows a increasingly common sight in university lecture halls where the lecturer way down there can easily become a minor distraction to the students at the back. The photo below right has been around for a while now but shows the teacher's view of such a class. It's easy as a teacher to look up at the sea of laptops and believe that they're all checking your links and taking insightful notes. Many of them are but others are not and that's really nothing new and should not even be a surprise to those of us who went to university before internet and who spent many lectures daydreaming, reading a newspaper, doodling or writing notes to neighbours.

Distractions have always existed but computers make it more obvious and seem to many as an intrusion. As a teacher it can certainly seem intimidating to face the sea of laptops pictured here and wonder if anyone is actually listening. But the main issue is that we have to really think about why we want to gather students in this sort of room at all, given that they can access lectures, articles, films etc from anywhere. What does the classroom offer that cannot be done with a webinar or social network? In particular, what does the traditional lecture hall offer that makes attendance unmissable? How can we make the face-to-face contact really work in this environment? Or maybe we have to see that lecture halls only really work for one way communication and that they should be reserved for really special lectures. Maybe live lectures will become special occasions rather than everyday chores and when you go to one you know it's going to be special. The rest are already available whenever you want on the net.

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