I came across this today in a story about a new book on What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education by Mary Burgen. While I'll admit up front that I haven't read the book yet, the following quote triggered my thinking: "But the hype for distance ed ignores the essential social contract involved in the teaching/learning exchange as enacted in live settings. Most cultures have viewed such an exchange as a sacred, communal duty — one that involves socialization as well as the intake of information." (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/11/20/burgan)
I studied my Graduate Certificate in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology totally on-line, and then did my Graduate Diploma year in a traditional classroom. I was so disappointed with the quality of my experience in the second year that I complained often to the lecturers about the comparison with my first year experience online. I do not think I have ever had such an intense, productive learning experience as I had in that one year course. The quote above suggests that the only 'good' learning is face to face, and I have to say after my experience that this view is outmoded.
The social interaction we students had in our online course was structured and managed by our course convenor who is one of the most inspirational teachers I have ever had. She challenged me to be intellectually strong and to test myself and my ideas, and she worked hard to develop a learning community that was so strong that it endures today, two years after that part of the course finished.
The argument that we will need to maintain face to face learning into the future needs to be tested against the changing communication and learning styles of our children today. MSN and similar online communications keep our children in touch with each other just as I might have used the telephone when I was a teenager. Children today learn about group work and task achievement through their MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing games). They learn about tolerance of diversity and difference through these games as well as they interact with people from all over the world. Why is this sort of experience less of a learning experience than what they learn in classrooms at school during the day?
Learning is such a personal thing that blanket quotes like the one from Burgen's book are probably dangerous. It is the assumption thing again - just because one assumes that learning can only be well done in a face to face setting doesn't mean that it will always be so. A good lecturer can inspire and generate good learning in any environment. It is time that we stopped imposing our assumptions on the learning environment, and learned how to be a bit more open to different learning styles and preferences. Maybe the faculty of today need stop focusing on how they have been cut out of management decision making, and instead focus on how they can engage with learners of the future?