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November 15, 2006

Is Learning Online Like Watching Football on TV?

The challenge of effective eLearning is finding ways to leverage the medium that simply can't be equaled in solely traditional teaching environments.  Can students learn better from online-instruction than from in-person instruction?  One example pointed out to me was the wildly different experience of listening to a string quartet play live in a real space as compared to listening to the radio or even a CD on a good audio system.  Does the presence, energy, acoustic power, and ambiance of that live performance extend through the electronic realm?  Sort of, but it's just not the same.  Would you willingly deny anyone the option of the in-person experience without good reason?

To me, the alternate example is the professional football game.  Sure, sitting at the top section of a stadium with 85,000 of your closest friends is a social experience with an energy that's hard to beat; but for actually watching a game, nothing beats a TV (even a small one) with instant replay, close-ups of the action, and that bright yellow line that marks the yardage for a first down.  

Which led me to this:  The challenge for eLearning and distance education is to identify the "yellow lines" of the medium -- those things that represent something inherently valuable but simply not possible in the traditional-teaching realm.  Maybe eLearning's real advantage will remain rooted in the fact not that it competes with in-person teaching, but that it allows learning where in-person teaching is not possible or practical.  But I think there's also some "yellow-line" capabilities waiting to be explored, even where educational technology supports (rather than supplants) in-person learning.  

One example of a genuinely new and interesting capability is the digital pen note-taking integration done by Tegrity in their classroom capture system.  I've long been a user of Logitech's digital pen.  The pen allows you to write on special notebook paper, and captures everything you write to your computer as a perfect digital image of the page you wrote.  You can print pages, share them via email, as well as add text and drawing to the page in the computer, making pages indexable and searchable.  What Tegrity has done is to tie the note-taking with the digital pen to the timeline of the video/slides (marketing demo video) captured during a live lecture.  Students who took notes during the class can, at their own PCs, bring up their notes on-screen alongside the lecture video. The lecture video, the instructor's notes, and the student's notes all become part of a synchronized presentation.  Notes can go from being a one-shot chance to get the main points down (sometimes at the expense of really listening) to being a guide to review and further exploration.  I don't know if it will transform teaching and learning, but it struck me as an example of a stunningly clever and useful application of technology to do something that was previously quite impossible.

There's a lot of activity in researching the effect of these technologies.  One interesting study is Lonnie Harvel's dissertation Using Student-Generated Notes as an Interface to a Digital Repository (pdf).  Harvel explores the surprisingly low use of digital repositories in education by experimenting with methods to integrate lectures, student notes, and external resources in deeply integrated ways. 

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