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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Opportunities for the Future of Online Education

A couple of months ago I was conversing with a Lutheran in another state regarding means for learning and growing in the faith. This person is isolated from a “normal” down the street relationship with a confessional Lutheran church and thus had problems getting good information and content for growing in the faith. I had directed this person to both a Lutheran and a secular web site and asked the person what they thought. Their answer surprised me but now that I think about it a bit, it really shouldn’t be a surprise. For the secular site was one of these high flying heavily promoted sites that had won accolades from various educators and well-known foundations. Yet the secular site fell flat for this person. Why? With all the money, time, and the good reputation did this particular means for educating fall flat? People learn differently, and different subjects may require different methods for teaching.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge of mass-education. While perhaps 75-80% of all students learn well in a lecture type presentation format, what do you do with the other 20-25%? In the past (based upon my own personal experience,) you tell the non-conforming students to suck it up and learn. They need to adapt because that is just the way it is. It will be good for them we think. Many of them just drop out and quit. Such is an example of one of the great failures of the one-size-fits-all education model. I believe we can do better.
When there is a learning gap, we have two choices. One is to force the student to adapt to the existing system. The other is for the teacher and system to adapt to the student. When we as educators force students into a one-size-fits-all model of teaching, we run the risk of putting potential learners through unnecessary stress and strain simply because we as parents or educators fail to adapt our teaching to their modes and means of learning. New technology and learning distribution models are on the horizon that hopefully can help in adapting the right teaching for the better learning modes of individual students.
An example of this is MIT who is in the process of preparing a beta version of their MITx online learning platform which appears to do just that. Part of the goal of this momentous project is to refine and improve the learning effectiveness of online learning tools. As one reads between the lines of their plans, one is lead to anticipate that part of this project is to provide a variety of common modes of learning for the same material. So if you are an auditory learner, there would be plenty of content directed at that learning style. If you are a visual learner, there would be plenty of videos available. For the reader, there would be plenty of reading material both condensed and in great detail to meet those learning needs. If you need drills and practice they provide the adaptable and progressive means for challenging the learner at their own pace. Need a group and collaborative learning environment, that appears to be part of the package.
How can this help upper education and Christian education in general? I was reading an article on the effective use of e-books the other day and was amazed to learn that one of the great failings of the medium was the inability or clunkiness of being able to annotate and highlight text. I thought it was just me as I personally have experienced this myself. I bought a common top-rated ereader with the intention of migrating over from my large book and paper library into an all electronic format that I could read on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. The current software just was not yet able to quickly and easily do this. I was disappointed. I had high hopes for the medium and due to growing pains, the software and related hardware was not just there yet. For all you ereader developers out there, solve this problem and a huge educational market will open up and beat a path to your door with cash in hand.
As the Vice President of Administration for a higher education institution, it is my hope that the education market will quickly adapt and make available a variety of tools through ereaders and Learning Management Systems like that of MITx so that the warehouse of knowledge that God has permitted man to accumulate may be readily made available at a reduced cost for future generations to use and exploit for the benefit of our secular neighbor and fellow Christian.