Arnold Kling  

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What do you call a technology that looks promising but always lets you down? In this essay, I point out that one example is micropayments. Another example, I argue, is virtual classrooms.

Most web-based education software seems designed to enable a teacher to make course materials, such as lectures, accessible by computer. However, if access to lectures were the issue, then the VCR would have been the ultimate solution in distance learning.

What I always say is that Teaching Equals Feedback. In a classroom, students are giving teachers feedback (much of it nonverbal) as to how well they are absorbing the material. In grading problem sets, papers, and tests, teachers provide feedback to students about where they need to work harder. The feedback loop is essential to the learning process.

For Discussion. Have you ever used educational software that really facilitated feedback between students and professors?

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Eric Krieg writes:

I have done my entire master's degree via distance learning. I agree that feedback is the weak link.

In my case, the technology was closed circuit television. The class was broadcast to my remote location. If I had a question, I called into the lecture hall and spoke to the prof in real time.

There was a courier for homework. I called the profs during their office hours.

I agree with Arnold that the weak link in distance learning is feedback. The interaction with the professor is something I missed.

HOWEVER, in my case, I traded that interaction for conveniance. Distance learning allowed me to obtain a masters degree while still working. I could take the classes at work, so I didn't waste time commuting.

If it weren't for distance learning, I wouldn't have a masters degree. It has its downsides, but it is still a way of obtaining education that I highly recommend to everyone.

Oh, and my GPA for my masters degree is 2 tenths of a point higher than my conventionaly obtained undergraduate degree. Feedback isn't everything.

DVM writes:

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had a wondeful physics professor who began each lecture by giving out remote controls to every student in his class. During lectures he would propose a series of questions. The remote control enabled every student to answer the questions so that the professor could quickly gauge the level of understanding in the classroom and tailor his lecture accordingly. He would ask both mutitple choice and free-form questions, and the software would allow him to put up a histogram of the answers with a click of a button. The responses were anonymous, which leads me to believe that this was the most accurate way to ascertain how well the lectures were understood.

Mark writes:

I've seen a demo of techonolgy much like what DVM mentions. I haven't used it myself, and it would be a lot of work to prepare to use it in my classes, but it looks promising.

Lok Wong writes:

Since I don't like this type of tech at all,I've never tried it and will not do it in the future.

I think that during the learning process "communication" and "interaction" are most important.Not only communication with teachers but also communication with your classmates.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

A system of continuous quizzes must be given, much like the traditional system at West Point. The Professor can evaluate the total, and redirect his next lectures. lgl

kiiquu writes:

I agree that feedback and group interaction is critical. I don't agree that it can't be done using online techniques. Maybe you just haven't been in a good program. I run a school which is totally online and I also run programmes using blended learning in physical schools and both rely heavily on various kinds of teacher-student and student-student feedback using group discusssion forums, private forums and blogging.

Indeed if you frequent something like you'll see people get quite carried away in the forums and are quite emotional. So called virtual conversations can be as real and involving as a good book which is also text based. It just takes some different strategies and teachers who can think outside the box. In fact, the discussion in this very blog is evidence of what can be done!

Two major problems with virtual learning: 1) Programmers developed the software, not teachers, therefore the software reflects what programmers think is good teaching software, they're wrong, 2) schools which adopted it didn't ask the right questions (IMHO) and therefore they recreated the worst of physical classrooms.

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