What online learning CAN’T do: Why face-to-face still reigns


Teaching | Friday, July 5, 2013

What online learning CAN’T do: Why face-to-face still reigns

What online learning can't do

Online learning has revolutionized education. But it can’t do what face-to-face teaching can. (Flickr / Missoula Public Library)

As a Spanish teacher, I hear it time and time again.

“What do you think of Rosetta Stone?”

I hear it from parents of my students mostly. Family and friends ask sometimes, too.

When they ask me that question, I don’t think they’re really looking for a product review of language-learning software.

They really want to know something a little deeper.

“Can you truly acquire a new language with your computer/smart phone/tablet?”

My answer is generally that, in my opinion, you can get the basics and some semblance of language acquisition, but there’s nothing like face-to-face conversation.

To take that question further, those parents may be thinking what I’m pretty sure much of the world is wondering.

“Can online learning take the place of face-to-face learning?”

I think much of the non-education world thinks it’s a no-brainer. Why, they may think, should we pay teachers when the same instruction can be delivered to every student anywhere on demand?

Online learning often is streamlined. It’s flashy. It incorporates those fun gadgets that we all love to play with.

It can bring the best teachers and minds into any student’s world for instruction.

Can it take the place of poor teaching with antiquated pedagogy?

Sure it can, and it has in many places. Think of how many kids Sal Khan (Khan Academy) has taught math and science to because their teachers did a lousy job.

Can it take the place of great teaching? Well, sort of, but not really.

But there are a lot of things learning from user interfaces, videos and interactive apps can’t do.

  • It can’t reach out and console a droopy-eyed student whose parents kept her awake fighting all night.
  • It can’t high-five a freshman basketball player the day after he makes his first three-pointer in a game.
  • It can’t reassure a struggling student that she matters and she can overcome an obstacle.
  • It can’t notice a new hair style, new pair of shoes or new girlfriend.
  • It can’t overhear hallway bullying and take steps to protect a child in danger.
  • It can’t guide a student to a more interesting research topic based on a years-long relationship.
  • It can’t share joy. It can’t comfort sorrow.

Relationships matter. Face-to-face matters. Technology just can’t empathize and love like a human.

So can online learning take the place of face-to-face learning?

My answer to this debate is similar to my position on Rosetta Stone.

You can get the basics and some semblance of an education.

But there’s nothing like face to face. Nothing.

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  • Michelle says:

    I wouldn’t expect to find myself saying this, but that was a great list of “can’t-s.” Online learning can be a lot of things, but instruction using strictly a software program will always be missing the social aspect of learning as well as the human touch you point out.

  • Rodney Turner says:

    Great in-the-moment post. Wonderful points made on both sides. Another reason for doing online learning is a financial one. It costs money to transport, pay teacher salaries and benefits and facility for class time. People and districts don’t have that type of money as much anymore hence the movement toward inexpensive education.
    I agree, the f2f, human touch, and visual cues are essential to making a deeper relationship with the teacher. Online and/or textbooks can replace parts of education, but not all.

  • Linda Gilmore says:

    I disagree with the “can’t” statements regarding online instruction. For the past decade (or more) I have been teaching Introduction to Psychology at a two-year college in both online and F2F formats. I CAN make online learning a ‘social’activity, I CAN provide the ‘human touch’, and I CAN have access to visual cues. Online learning does not have to be without these vital elements. How do I do this? I intentionally foster communication in my online classes by providing numerous opportunities for communication in multiple modalities (examples: live online video chat, class discussion threads on various topics, private email, a “class lounge”=open discussion forum for peer chats, telephone chats with me, live in-office meetings, and written assignments involving personal reflection). I have even used virtual worlds (Second Life) to have virtual chats in my virtual office to review a test or discuss study strategies with the struggling online student. (It is amazing what students will share when feeling less intimidated meeting in an office with a view of a virtual beach talking to an avatar rather than meeting in the physical office of ‘the professor’…but that is another topic.) I personalize my classes with photos of myself and audio and/or videos versions of my lectures to make the class more ‘human’. I actively and repeatedly encourage students to have dialogue with me and with the class. I set guidelines for class discussions to ensure students are respectful of one another. Because I do all these things, students CAN feel comfortable opening up to me and to their classmates. I CAN know about the sorrows from death of a family member or health issues from the personal reflections (written on an assignment about stress); the joys of weight loss or quitting smoking (from a behavior modification assignment), a new baby or new job (mentioned in a discussion). I CAN know about the obstacles (sick family member, work-related travel, son in jail, foreclosure on home, inability to comprehend the material, lack of sleep due to domestic abuse, living in a motel because of eviction) faced by the struggling student who contacts me for help via telephone or email messages or with whom I initiate contact when I see low test scores or an unusual but telling comment or phrase in a discussion post. I am able to stay connected with my students at least weekly, sometimes daily, and therefore I CAN respond timely, appropriately, and sensitively to their social and emotional and academic needs. They CAN get the help or accolades they deserve–whether comforting words of sympathy, a referral to a school counselor for significant personal issues, academic assistance, or a verbal ‘pat on the back’ for improving test scores or getting a new job. When I communicate with students (usually via ANGEL messages or announcements) I also ‘share’ a little bit of myself–my past, my interests, my beliefs, my current activities. This opens up lines of communication so I CAN have more in-depth personal dialogue with students, the same as what I have with a student who might stay after class to share a personal insight gained from the lecture or ask questions to learn more about the topic which piqued his/her interest. I take time to respond to online student messages in a way that shows I am ‘listening’–not just reading and responding with a brief reply to the content of their request for an extension on an assignment but responding in depth to the underlying reason and emotional need which is often only incidentally mentioned or can be read ‘between the lines’. Just as with F2F students, I show online students that I care–and hence offer the ‘human touch’– by giving them my time, the time needed to compose a sensitive, thoughtful written response (even when I don’t always have the extra time to spend, I do it because it is as important as the F2F student sitting across from me in my office). When appropriate, my message may convey the equivalent of a metaphysical ‘hug’. I get feedback from online students that they feel I care and that they do not feel I am a ‘distant’ teacher even though they are in a distance learning section. Often I learn more about my online students and get to know them better than my F2F students because they feel comfortable sharing more personal details in their private messages to me than F2F students might want to share in a classroom setting. I also create opportunities to have access to those important visual cues. Sometimes my online students stop by my office or sit in on the lecture class(because I actively and repeatedly invite them) or I set up have a virtual video chat if they cannot travel to my office (they don’t have a car or can’t afford the gas). So I CAN compliment them on their appearance, notice if they appear distressed, or make conversation about the team jersey or hat they are wearing. In the discussions, students get encouragement or praise or sympathy from other students as well as from me. Between myself and their peers, there is plenty of caring social interaction for students in my online classes. Rather than focus on what we CAN’T do, as instructors, we should find ways we CAN interact with online students to provide the ‘human touch’ and find ways we CAN get access to nonverbal and visual cues in addition to verbal cues. We just need to make the effort to actively and regularly incorporate a variety of methods of communication into our online classes and do this in a way that is genuine and meets the unique needs of the individual students, just as we do in the F2F classes.

  • […] I came across Matt Miller’s blog “What Online Learning Can’t Do: Why Face-to-Face Reigns” I was expecting the usual sentiments about elearning failing to measure up to traditional […]

  • I have taken some classes online and I do not like it that much like classical teaching. It gives more space for discussion.

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