Landing : Athabascau University

You Can Learn Everything Online Except for the Things You Can't

img src="" alt="cookies (public domain, McNamara Fallacy, and well done to Allain for pointing this out in a mainstream publication. Where I profoundly disagree is the bizarre notion that colleges somehow bake better cookies, or that cookies are the only (or even the best) medium in which to embed chocolate chips.

Allain's confusion is shared by a great many professional educators and educational researchers so, assuming he is not a professional researcher in the field, his ignorance is forgivable. If we are being persnickety, there is no such thing as either online or in-person learning: learning is something that is done by people (individually and collectively) and it resides in both people and the environments/objects they co-create and in which they live. It is not done online or in-person. It is done in the connections we make, in our heads and between one another. 

It is fair to observe that there are huge differences between online and on-campus learning. There is no doubt that removing people from the rest of the human race, and shoving a bunch of them who share an interest in learning together in one concentrated space does result in some interesting and useful side effects, and it does lead to a distinctive set of benefits. When done well (admittedly rarely) it gives people time to dream, time to explore, time to do nothing much apart from reflect, to discover, to connect, and to talk, to grow. For kids who have lived dependent lives in schools and their homes this can be a useful transition phase. So, yes, there are things learned in physical colleges that are not the same as things learned in other places. But that's a trite truism. There are things learned in pubs, on planes, while swimming, in fields, etc, etc, etc that are distinctive too.

There is equally no doubt that those that don't go to college can and do get at least the same diversity and richness in their learning experience: it's just a different set of things that result from the complex interactions and engagements with where they happen to be and who they happen to know. Being less removed from the rest of life and the community has its own benefits, situating learning in different contexts, enabling richer connections between all aspects of human life. The online folk have (innately) much more control of their learning experience and, on the whole, therefore need to work harder to make the most of the environments they are in - it doesn't come in a neat, self-contained, packaged box. But to suggest that it is any the less rich and meaningful is to do online learners a deep disservice. My own institution, Athabasca University, doesn't have online learners. We just have learners, who live somewhere, in communities and in regions, among people and places that matter to them. We provide another (online) place to dwell but, unlike a traditional campus-based institution, it's not an either/or alternative: our online place coexists with and extends into myriad other physical places, that reach back into it and enrich it as much as we reach out and enrich them. At least, that's how it works when we do it right.

Analogies and metaphors can be useful jumping-off points for understanding things, and I'm OK with the cookie idea because it emphasizes the intimate relationship between teaching and learning. A more useful analogy, though, might be to compare and contrast online vs in-person learning with the experiences of those who watch movies on a home theatre via Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Mubi, etc vs those who watch movies at the cinema. There's a great deal to be said for the cinema - the shared experience, the feeling of belonging to a crowd and, of course, the big benefits of being able to hang out with fellow movie-goers before and after the movie. There's also the critical value of the rituals, and the simple power of the event. I love going to movie theatres. On the other hand, if you have a decent enough rig at home (technologies matter) there's also a lot to be said for the control (stop when you need a break, rewind to catch things you missed or want to see again, adjust the volume to your needs, eat the food you want, drink what you wish, etc), the vast choice (tens of thousands of movies rather than a handful), the flexibility (when you want, with whom you want, at a pace to suit you), the focus (no coughing, chatting, phone-using idiots around you, etc), the diversity and range of social connectedness (from looking up reviews on IMDB to chatting about it on social media or with others in the room), and the comfort of watching movies at home.

Can one replace the other? Not really. Is one better than the other? It depends. I'm glad I don't have to make a final binary choice in the matter, and I think that's how we should think about online and in-person teaching. I don't mean that a single institution should offer alternative online and in-person routes: that's way too limiting, like only getting movies from one organization. I mean that education can and should be a distributed experience, chosen by the learners (with guidance if they wish), not tied to one place and one method of learning. Just as I can watch YouTube, Netflix, Mubi, Crave, Amazon Prime, Apple, or whatever, as well as go to any one of several movie theatres nearby (not to mention open-air movie events etc), so should I be able to choose my ways to learn.

Disclaimer: this is not a perfect metaphor by any means. Perhaps it would be fairer to compare watching a live play with watching streaming TV, and it certainly doesn't begin to capture the significant differences in engagement, interaction, activity, and creativity involved in the educational processes compared with 'passive' watching of entertainment. But it's still better than chocolate chip cookies.


  • Jon, to suggest  an analogy, perhaps viewing a play live in a theatre vs. watching a live stream of the same play from your couch.

    Perhaps a music concert is an even better comparison. Say being at a live concert vs. watching a DVD (or live stream) of the exact same concert at home.

    In the live venu, you can watch what/who you want to watch. If you want to focus on the drummer, or the bass player, or a backup singer, you can. You can spend the entire concert watching what you want to watch.

    On a DVD/stream, you can only watch what some other person has decided you will watch. Be that a producer or editor, you see what everyone who watches that stream/DVD sees. If they spend most of the concert on the "star", then that's all you get.

    What is odd  however, is that when you toss this analogy at education, you get the direct opposite effect - real classroom vs. ideal on-line learning.

    As you've so often pointed out, the best on-line learning experience puts the learner in control of the situation. They decide what to view, how often, where to go next, etc.

    Contrast the classroom. You sit, bum in seat, for X minutes, listening to an educator drone on about whatever THEY think is the important thing in the lesson guide. Again, in a perfect world the lecturer would be captivating and engaging, even interacting with the class to create a unique experience. But reality is that most classroom sessions are pure stodge.


    Richard Huntrods August 9, 2018 - 2:30pm

  • The biggest problem with the classroom is not so much the lecture per se (although that's a truly terrible way to impart most kinds of knowledge), but that we make students attend it. Even when we teach using smarter techniques (see my recent talk at for a list of examples) the external regulation remains a vicious hobble.  It would be like being forced to attend a concert by the same singer every week, with the threat looming over you that, once the series of concerts was over, if you couldn't repeat which songs had been played and which witty asides had been made in every week, you would be made to suffer for the rest of your life. Even if it were not so life-changing, how would it affect your experience of the concert if you knew there were a test at the end?

    My point, though, was not so much that a single event is better or worse than another single event, but that the person viewing a movie at home has (as you suggest) a vast amount more control, and a vastly greater range of choices, in a host of different ways, at a host of different times, than the person sitting in a cinema seat (or theatre, concert venue, whatever). Among those choices are ones that very closely resemble the experience of the cinema-goer, but they are a tiny subset of the whole. Among the whole, many would be highly superior. It's about comparing ways of learning, not instances of teaching.

    On the whole I'd still often like to attend a live concert performance from time to time because there are many ways it can be very meaningful, at a deep, tribal, visceral level. The rituals of attendance are powerful. The simple acts of making arrangements to be there and paying exorbitant ticket prices add great salience. Even the fact that it is difficult to be somewhere at a specific place and time, no matter how you feel or what the conditions might be, makes it matter more. And, even when Paul McCartney is a speck in the distance seen from behind with big-hatted people standing in front of you blocking most of the view and farting, it's still Paul McCartney and, wow, he was a Beatle, and that's much bigger than just the music.  But I love the Beatles because of radio, TV, cinema, books, magazines, and repeated playing of records, tapes, CDs, and, now, the web, online video and audio streaming. And, though I would kill to go back in time and attend an actual Beatles concert, their movies were really great and could not be replicated in person. Inverting your analogy, would you rather see Yellow Submarine as the original movie, or performed live on stage?

    Jon Dron August 11, 2018 - 1:20pm

  • would you rather see Yellow Submarine as the original movie, or performed live on stage?

    Easy one. YS was an animated (99.99%) movie that defined psychedelia (almost) for a generation.

    Performed live, it's some deriviative P.O.S. "written" by some hack who usually thinks they know better than the original creators.

    I'd take the "real deal" (movie) over some interpretation every time.

    Of course, then there's the original Monty Python Skits, or even the move "... Holy Grail", vs. "Spamalot". Now there's a more difficult choice, as the creators had a hand in all of the above. ;-)


    Richard Huntrods August 11, 2018 - 5:49pm

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