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Monday, September 9, 2013

Aaron Hirsh on On-Line vs. In-Person Education: A Compromise

Aaron Hirsh's op-ed piece in today's NYT is worth reading - he makes the point that on-line education -- for all its advantages -- offers merely a binary relationship between student and teacher, whereas traditional education is triangular -- the student, the professor, and the subject matter.  He points out that underprivileged kids working only on on-line courses are more likely to drop out than such kids who actually attend classes.  His solution:  allow the on-line component to go forward, but also include sessions with the professor where the students interact directly with the professor, perhaps in a museum or on a field trip, where students can apply and further explore what they learned on-line, with the professor.

I like that idea.  One of the "disadvantages" of the "triangular" relationship is that students often have to suffer through all of the tangents and blind alleys that other students tend to lead the professor down.  While I am for class participation -- and I think it can be an essential part of the learning process for the participant -- it often slows things down for everyone else.  On-line, the student can get his or her questions answered (by google if nothing else), and not disrupt the experience for everyone else.  And theoretically at least, watching a professor on-line can be a much more interactive experience than sitting in your seat watching the professor speak.  I.e. you have the ability to rewind for the parts where you were day-dreaming, you have the ability to pause and google around and get your questions answered in real time without disturbing everyone else.

On-line also helps with the perennial dilemma that students face in deciding how to prepare for a class.  Yes, reading and understanding and absorbing 100 pages of material is often rewarding and certainly comes in handy in a class where the professor might cold call on you.  But in some cases, seeing the lecture first will help give you the background to attack the reading material more productively and efficiently.

Similarly, Hirsh's idea addresses the "unprepared student" problem, i.e. the problem that students who haven't really absorbed (or done) the reading just don't get as much out of the class.  If the meetings with teachers are only relatively few and far between, and occur AFTER the student has had many on-line experiences (and presumably has read the corresponding material), then the student is much better able to make the most out of the occasional interactive experience with the professor.

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