Does Online Learning Work?

In my first job, back in 1993, I used to carry around a printed list (this was before PowerPoint) with me: Customers often asked why email may be better than fax, and I thought carrying around such a comparison with me would save a lot of time. 

While that issue was satisfactorily resolved, I am still having to answer a similarly challenging question: Does online learning work? The comparison, this time, is with the classroom learning. I would accept that this is not exactly a rerun of fax-vs-email thing, nothing ever is: However, there are common elements in the conversation, particularly two. First, those who tell me that online learning doesn't work with most certainty have never done any, just as the skeptics eschewed emails in my previous experience. Second, my answer that it is better for certain kinds of activities while Fax may be needed for certain other kinds of things perhaps could be repeated - I usually say classroom training is very good for certain things that online learning can't do. 

So, it depends. We don't live in an either-or world, and one does not have to wipe out classroom training (or online learning) to do the other thing. In fact, online learning can do things that classroom training can't do, and when online learning is built around such things, it is at its most effective. How else could people connect a dispersed group of learners from across the world, if a certain kind of learning demanded it? Or allow people to learn at their own time, if that's what learners needed? When we talk about whether one mode of learning works, or whether this is better than the other, we are essentially asking the wrong question. We should rather be asking what form of learning may be better to achieve the objectives of learning in that given context. 

Given that this is common sense, and everyone seems to concede this point when I make the argument, I wonder when people say online learning does not work, they are not really complaining about the medium of learning: They are essentially questioning whether people can learn by themselves. This is where this debate gets really sticky, because people learning by themselves have all kinds of implications. Though one may obviously see that knowledge does not reside in the head of the Guru anymore, it just can't, lots of people fear the consequences of not being able to tell people what to learn. That online learning doesn't work is, in fact, an emotional statement, an expression of deep fears and concerns, rather than an empirical observation, because if it does work, for situations and possibilities not contemplated before, it would disrupt a lot of things. 

However, if we learned anything about technology-led disruptions in the last two centuries is that they happen, and the enlightened and profitable approach has been to embrace it and to use it to one's advantage rather than living in a denial. This is what I used to say then, evangelizing email, and this is what I say now: Going in circles may be as much a part of our nature as technological progress.




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