A Face to Face Teacher Begrudgingly Takes Online Classes:

Imagining a Future for In-Person Education in an Online World

I work at Eston College, a little Bible College in rural Saskatchewan. For many years, our constituency has asked us to develop an online curriculum. For a variety of reasons, we have resisted this request. However, when COVID-19 forced our college to switch to online learning, we realized something important. In-person education is a vulnerable model, and we are now getting serious about online learning.

That’s why I begrudgingly ended up taking courses this summer from Trinity Western University about education and online learning. To my delight, my first assignment was to critique Terry Anderson’s “interaction equivalency theorem” (2003). This theorem implies that online learning can be as effective as in-person learning. Since I have been finding justification for our college not to go online for a dozen years, this was easy! Not surprisingly, my blog post, “An Ancient Critique of the ‘Interaction Equivalency Theorem,” made quite a stir with my peers.

How Virtualization Changes Analog Experiences:

The primary reason I struggle with moving education online is that virtualizing any analog experience changes the nature of that experience. In my previous post, I used music as an example: “Recorded music isn’t just music in a different medium; it is a fundamentally different experience of music.” As the near-ubiquity of AirPods prove, music is no longer a communal experience but an individualized one based on convenience. Of course, the good news is that music becomes more accessible, but our experience of music as something requiring in-person relationships has forever changed.

The Internet’s Two Fundamental Rules:

The internet pushes in the direction of increasing access and convenience by eliminating the inefficiencies of analog relationships. After all, the internet’s disruptive power flows out of two fundamental rules:

  1. The rule of Increasing Convenience: the success of Amazon demonstrates that people default towards what is most convenient.
  2. The rule of Reducing Cost: internet-based business models undercut their analog competitors through crowd-sourcing resources (e.g., Uber, Airbnb) or by eliminating overhead like brick-and-mortar buildings (e.g., Amazon, Casper – mattresses, Zenni – glasses, Simplii/Tangerine – banking).

The two rules of virtualization are already reshaping how education works. As my previous blog post about “The Bezonomics of Multi-Access Education” makes clear, a learner-centred “multi-access” approach that prioritizes increasing convenience for learners is the new gold standard for online and in-person education.

By contrast, the second rule of reducing costs hasn’t caught up for education yet. In-person education is, by definition, more expensive than online education, but there is more tradition slowing down this change than in other sectors of the economy. However, in the long run, isn’t online education just another content streaming service like Netflix? From Blockbuster’s perspective 15 years ago, no one would have guessed that in 2020 you could access an unlimited Netflix library for 15 dollars a month. Yet, that is how the rule of the reduction of cost works. With few exceptions, the internet trends toward maximizing user value through a low-cost subscription model. It is no wonder that this is already happening in education, as “Subscription Rather than Tuition” (Schroeder, 2020) is emerging (e.g., Straighterline.com and CourseaPlus).

So Is There a Future for In-Person Education?

Given these changes, I can’t help but ask what role there will be for a small residential college in an online world. I believe we may get a clue from the results of the virtualization of music. Even though music became radically accessible, it never removed people’s willingness to pay a premium to attend concerts in person. By analogy, then, in-person education will always remain appealing, especially for young people just learning how to study.

My own experience of working through online classes has made me less skeptical about their value. However, the highlights were in-person group projects and the occasional synchronic Zoom calls with my peers/instructors. In my opinion, the mix of content and social interaction was just about right for busy adult learners. However, I don’t know if the social ingredient would keep the average 20-year old motivated to study online.

Since most 20-somethings need more social interaction than adult learners to stay motivated, I envision a future where college students gather in academic collectives where each student works through different online curriculums. This solution could help supplement for the loss of the social presence that the university traditionally provided. Additionally, in-person education collectives could hire learning coaches to help students work through the emotional barriers to learning.

In light of these challenges, the following video explains how Eston College is adapting:

Introducing the EC Collective

If this kind of academic community becomes a reality, higher education may need fewer subject-matter experts (as the internet substitutes for the teacher), and more experts trained as learning coaches (see my post on how coaching fits hand-in-glove for Christian teachers).

The Relationship Between Teaching-Coaching-Facilitating

Besides an increased need for more academic learning coaches, another potential outcome of the shift towards online learning is that those involved in education may need to become proficient at the complementary skill of facilitation. Although teaching, coaching, and facilitating seem like similar roles, they each play a distinct role to aid learning. One of my classmates, Lisa Olding (2020), made the following helpful Venn diagram to show the relationships between each role:

Venn Diagram – Coaching-Teaching-Facilitating

Since I am a teacher, I (pridefully) feel like coaching and facilitation remain secondary roles to teaching. After all, the teacher is the only person who functions as a subject matter expert, so by definition, the other two roles must act as servants to the goals of teaching (i.e., helping learners master and apply content). However, as the internet disrupts the teacher’s authority as the key-holder of knowledge, it is becoming increasingly important for teachers to shift away from delivering content. Instead, in-person education will require teachers to become facilitators of learning experiences who pay close attention to individual student needs (see my post on The Jesuit as Allegory for Multi-Access Learning).

I foresee a flipped-classroom future (first coined by Bergmann, J., & Sams, A., 2012) where most “teaching” happens outside of the classroom through online interactive lessons designed by experts that students finish before coming to class. During F2F (face to face) class time, trained facilitators and learning coaches will help students apply and think critically about the material. In the ideal scenario, the teacher who designs the online curriculum is also the same person who meets with the students in-person. However, as the internet increasingly replaces subject matter experts, this may no longer be possible on a broad scale. Furthermore, isn’t it odd to think that just because someone is a subject matter expert that they are also trained in facilitating learning?

Is Expertise Essential to Facilitate Learning?

Furthermore, the ideal scenario described in the previous paragraph may be unfairly biased toward expertise. For example, I was once asked to teach a Survey of an Old Testament course. Since my training is in the New Testament, I had to rely heavily on the previous teacher’s notes. However, because I lacked expertise, I couldn’t just fill the classroom time with supplementary lectures. Instead, I tracked down resources that helped me facilitate F2F learning experiences so the students could process what they were learning. This course has become delightful to teach because although I am still not a subject matter expert, I also am immune to the curse of knowledge. In other words, I can’t overwhelm the students with content far beyond an introductory level.

Through this experience of forced facilitation, I discovered that students enjoy a more interactive classroom experience and reflecting on the material in creative ways. Interestingly, some scholars even suggest that in-person education tools like role play courses will help save the brick and mortar learning environment (see the end of my blog post about teaching Romans through Role Play). Whether it is role-playing or something else, the value proposition of in-person education will have to improve if students are going to pay the premium necessary for F2F schools to succeed.

In-Person Education, Ready or Not, Here Comes Disruption:

Ultimately, Walmart is still (sort of) competing with Amazon, but Walmart requires a lot more employees and overhead to reach the same goals. Whether or not a rural residential college has a place in the future of higher education depends on how well it can leverage the two rules that govern the economics of the internet. Successful schools will find ways to reduce costs by using the internet to deliver content traditionally distributed F2F by teachers. This means the teaching role will move into the background as experts spend their time creating and maintaining online content. Furthermore, successful schools will maximize convenience by making social interactions available to students in multi-access formats.

In the long run, schools that attract students will provide an “anytime, anywhere and any way” (Irvine, Code, & Richards, 2013) learning plan. In this future, we will likely see 24/7 individualized learning coaches that students can access whenever they have questions, multi-access online classes that are recorded when students can’t attend in person, and convenient LMS’s available on every platform and device. Ultimately, these predictions suggest a future where most students spend their time studying online. However, I expect that in-person education through academic collectives and highly interactive F2F learning experiences (like role-play) will still have an important place. After all, it might be an AirPods world, but we still love going to concerts.

Sources:

Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 4(2). Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v4i2.149

Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Washington: ISTE.

Irvine, V., Code, J., & Richards, L. (2013, June). Realigning higher education for the 21st century learner through multi-access learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no2/irvine_0613.htm

Olding, L. (2020, August 15). Small Group Facilitation Reflection. Lisa Olding. Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://create.twu.ca/lolding/2020/08/15/small-group-facilitation-reflection/

Schroeder, R. (2020, March 25). Subscription Rather Than Tuition. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/online-trending-now/subscription-rather-tuition

In-Person Education in an Online World – Imagining the Future

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