Inside Higher Ed had an interesting article yesterday. The Department of Education has released a meta-analysis of studies that compare online, hybrid and traditional “face to face” learning environments. The results were surprising: Students perform better in online courses than in face-to-face courses, and they perform best of all in hybrid courses. The results certainly challenge the assumption that online education is what we resort to when it’s difficult to meet in the classroom. It turns out there are clear advantages to online learning for students beyond convenience. But online learning and the software that allows us to pursue it are just formats and tools. And tools like whiteboards, or projectors, or laptops, don’t make learning happen; a whiteboard with disorganized information isn’t better than a chalkboard with a simple, clear diagram. While it’s true that a whiteboard makes it easier to have clear writing, and bright bold diagrams, those things aren’t impossible without a whiteboard. Similarly, online education and hybridized education facilitates a certain quality of experience that’s perfectly accessible in face to face courses.
The Department of Education meta-study cites a few key-practices that online learning encourages that contribute to student performance: exercises or activities that require learner reflection, activities that help the students self-monitor their understanding. Another major benefit of online learning is the time it allows students to think, and consider, especially in collaborative activities like discussion. All of these practices are possible to incorporate in face to face classes. Here’s one idea: you can build a greater sense of time into discussions by having students pause for reflective writing after every few contributions. There may be fewer interactions, but students will pay careful attention to the few interactions you have, maybe sometimes that’s preferable to a conversation whizzing by at the speed of “real time.” How else might you be able to make your real classroom more like an online environment? When was the last time you heard that question?