The prevailing view of distance learning is that it can only ever be second-best. What, indeed, can match the liveliness of the interaction that happens when teacher meets students, and students meet each other, in a classroom setting?
That said, distance learning comes out quite well in some studies. One such investigation found that there was no significant difference in outcomes between virtual and face-to-face schools. There is at least enough evidence to make us pause when we hear the often-repeated claim that “nothing can replace face-to-face teaching.”
Of course, one difficulty in making comparisons between distance and face-to-face learning is that we are not comparing like with like. We have two different forms of education. In the one, physical proximity creates conditions which allow for spontaneity, for picking up on the atmosphere of a class, and for the building of rapport.
In the other, the interactivity is at best mediated, but there is still the chance for other important educational qualities to develop and blossom. Learning can become more centred on the student and the student can acquire a greater command of the skills of self-regulation and independence.
Rather than making a simple comparison, it is better, then, to look specifically at questions such as the comparative strengths and challenges of moving to virtual schooling and the conditions that need to be in place for it to function well.
“The connection needs to allow students to forget about the distance and focus solely on learning.”
Dr Jonathan Beale of the Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning at Eton College has provided a helpful summary of the principles governing successful distance learning programmes.
A central recommendation is that online learning happens best when a focused effort is made to form an online learning community. Teacher presence is vital. The teacher and class may be physically remote, but they need to be digitally connected, and the connection needs to be such that, at its best, students forget about the distance and focus solely on the learning. This lesson was borne out in the experience of teachers and students at Cranleigh School during the months when distance learning was the main mode of classroom interaction.
Students commented that they valued interaction; it was when they could communicate directly with their teachers, or engage in peer group interaction as part of the learning process, that they felt that learning was most successful. The more the distance learning environment approximated to the classrooms that they had recently and abruptly left, the better they appreciated the learning experience.
As the authors of the Teacher Guide to Online Learning published by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute state: “Creating a human-to-human bond with your online students, as well as with their parents/guardians and the student’s local online mentor, is critical in determining student success in your online course.”
“Distance learning programmes have the potential to foster independent and self-regulated learning.”
Necessity leads to invention, and being cast into a world where there is inevitably going to be less immediate availability of teacher guidance calls for a response from students. The challenge is to become stronger at taking charge of the learning process; better at deciding how to tackle problems and how to proceed with tasks that evolve “asynchronously”.
In a world where problem-solving, creativity and the capacity to respond to open-ended challenges have never been more needed, there is the potential for distance learning programmes to foster independent and self-regulated learning, preparing learners for the future.
This is not just airy rhetoric. A review of research in 2011 found that technologically enhanced learning environments provide an opportunity for students to develop their ability to self-regulate.
This was the experience of students at Cranleigh. Having found that they were, of necessity, in a position where they had to be more self-directed, many found within themselves that they did indeed have a capability for self-regulated learning, one that could be strengthened through practice.
When lower Sixth Form students were asked about lessons learned from the distance learning programme, the most frequent response was to note the gains that had been made in independent learning. Students commented on improved self-motivation, better time management, and improvements in independent problem solving.
With the move to online learning comes another opportunity, namely to expand the learning diet to include more project-based assignments. There is a natural fit between online and project learning, in that the online environment encourages use of “asynchronous” assignments which don’t rely on the assumption that all students will work on the same activity at the same time.
“Project work offers the chance to develop the skills so highly-prized by employers.”
Project work has much to offer here, being more open-ended, and, typically, tending to span longer time periods. A class might be asked to spend a week researching ways of making their home more energy efficient, rather than poring over a conventional set of worksheet-style calculations.
Project working in turn offers the chance to further develop the skills so highly-prized by employers: creativity, critical thinking, perseverance and the capacity to take on open-ended and sometimes ambiguous questions and challenges. It naturally casts students in the role of creators and investigators, with the teacher acting as a mentor or facilitator. It is a position that fits well with the dynamics of the online environment, where student engagement and absorption in the learning process has to be central.
It has become a cliche to say that the world has been transformed through the events of recent months. The bright light on the horizon suggests that there will be a point not too far distant when we will be able to look back on the experience of education in a pandemic as an historical event.
The question, looking ahead, is whether this will become the catalyst for change, and whether educational provision in the future will find a new equilibrium. One in which technology at last delivers on the promise of re-configuring learning to empower students and liberate teachers.