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What superstorm Sandy taught me about the failures of online learning (+video)

When hurricane Sandy closed my campus for a few days, my students and I had to conduct our course online. It was wholly inadequate. Online learning cannot – and should not – replace the real-time dialogue of the in-person classroom.

Commentary: Joshua Goodman outlines the challenges facing American schools, and compares them to more successful school systems in other countries.
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As a college English teacher whose school was closed for a week by superstorm Sandy, I learned an important hurricane lesson, one that I suspected all along: Online teaching is no substitute for the real thing in person. It rules out the most essential ingredient of the classroom and lecture hall – real-time collaboration between teacher and student.

When Sandy struck, my students and I did not sit around twiddling our thumbs. We began a series of email exchanges. I read papers, marked them, and emailed them back within 24 hours. By the standards of any online course, my students and I were having high levels of contact. There was plenty of “feedback” and no slacking off on the reading workload.

By online standards my students and I were successfully carrying on a course, but we were in fact engaged in pantomime. Our reading and writing assignments fulfilled formal requirements but missed out on the kind of personal exchange that is fundamental to learning.

In my emails back to my students, I was able to point out where their interpretations of a novel lacked textual evidence. I was even able to show them where their writing was murky. But what was impossible for me to do – short of sending an endless stream of e-mails – was find out through a meaningful conversation what my students were thinking when they misread a passage or got klutzy in their writing.

Any teacher can praise or criticize a student. That’s easy. But the key to good teaching is figuring out with students why they approached an assignment the way they did. Genuine growth in students comes not from them trying to fulfill their teacher’s demands, let alone please their teacher, but from them coming to the conclusion that there is a better way to read a book or write a paper than they first tried.

That better way has to be negotiated, however. It has to incorporate students’ own opinions, and it has to begin with the place students are at when they enter a course.


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