The argument started out with me explaining that going online would instantly lack the wonderful interaction of the classroom, to which he replied (you guessed it), “Why?”
Well, online is so distancing. “Why?”
Because it lacks the intimacy of the classroom. “Why?”
You get the picture. The wonderful part of this dialogue, as is often the case when I talk with this particular individual, was that it left me asking myself a few important questions: Why was I so negative on this environment? Was I simply defending the classroom because I felt threatened? Was I acting more on emotion than reality? Was the classroom as intimate an environment as I wanted it to be, or was I giving it more credit than it deserved? Did e-learning have more merit than I gave it credit for? Could it actually create newer and, in some ways, even richer learning environments than the classroom? My journey toward answering these questions has produced some interesting and challenging results.
First of all, I think we need to recognize that the classroom no longer corners the market on creating learning communities, if it ever did in the first place. As educators, we need to look at the definition of community and recognize that it can be actualized in many different ways. Webster’s Dictionary defines community as “a unified body of individuals.” It says nothing about location or method of interaction. We know that, for the most part, we are a communal species. We like to gather to share ideas, discuss issues and socialize. That “gathering” doesn’t have to be face-to face, and in some cases, it’s better served in other ways. Just watch any adolescent nowadays using chat. It’s becoming the “telephone” of our children’s generation. It offers its own level of collaboration, which is difficult to match in other modalities.
When learning is involved, we need to look at the reasons to bring learners together in a community setting. There is clearly a time for gathering in a classroom, but there are other times and technologies that we, as learning consultants, need to start considering if our training programs are to be as successful as possible. E-communities are making an amazing statement in learning, and many are low-tech and low-budget. Our options range from tools as simple and commonplace as e-mail to full-blown synchronous technologies such as solutions from Centra, Interwise, WebEx and Microsoft. Threaded message boards, which have been around since the DOS days, now command an amazing following. Do a Web search on “blogging,” and you will get millions of hits.
Each of these modalities offers a different dimension of community. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. To adopt any single solution as the end-all to community is as limiting as assuming that the classroom meets everyone’s needs. The power comes in the blending of many solutions. On any given day, I bounce between at least three of these modalities, depending on the type of information I’m seeking, the time I have to retrieve it and the outcome I’m pursuing. Simply offering these options and leaving their use up to chance is the same as assuming that a classroom will flourish if we bring students together and turn them loose on each other. We learned years ago that in order for a classroom to be at its best, it needs a certain level of structure, guidance and facilitation. The same holds true for the other options.
Does all of this add up to the demise of the classroom? Absolutely not. But it should produce a different kind of classroom. If we can create community and distribute content in these other ways, we need to be taken back to my colleague’s original question, “Why do we bring learners together in a physical classroom?” If we step back and take a look at the entire spectrum of what constitutes community today, the classroom, as well as these other options, takes on a whole new purpose, design and outcome. Let’s make a pact to meet online sometime to further discuss “Why?” It would be a wonderful and rich gathering of unified individuals!
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning. He has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. For more information, e-mail Bob at email@example.com.