What do students miss with a virtual education?

Is virtual education, whether in K12 or higher ed, just another way of differentiating instruction to meet student needs or is it destroying an essential, human part of education?

I had the chance to speak at a local university on Tuesday, talking to a class on cloud computing about the impact of technology (especially, of course, the cloud) on higher education. The class was great and was, itself, focused on team-based learning and simulations using a variety of cloud and web-based tools. What was even better, though, was the Q&A session with the students and my follow-up conversations with faculty and staff.

Let me start with something that ZDNet's digital video and photo blogger, Janice Chen, wrote in an unrelated discussion we were having about ZDNet's upcoming 20th anniversary:

I went to Cornell University in upstate NY (close enough to 1991 anyway) and was back up there semi-recently for a wedding. There's a big undergrad library there that EVERYONE went to for "studying" and what we called facetime back in the day...As I walked into Uris Library over the recent wedding weekend, I realized there was hardly anyone in there. No one sitting in the rows and rows of study carrels where we used to park ourselves with our open text books and pretend to read, while constantly looking up and scanning for familiar faces walking by. For a second I thought maybe we happened to be there over a school break, but then I realized that everyone studies in their rooms now with their own computers and the internet. Considering how hooked I am on electronics and technology, I'm sure I'd be just the same given half a chance. But still, I felt a bit sad for them--facetime at the library was such a big part of college life in those days...

It's one thing to be in a dorm room working and studying. At least in that setting, students most likely have roommates and neighbors, shared areas, "the Quad" or whatever constitutes a given school's hang-out-and-play-frisbee-and-breathe-air space, and even physical classrooms for face-to-face interactions.

It's quite another to have a computer with school-related social interactions conducted exclusively through email, voice and video chat, instant messaging, and other electronic means of communication. What gets lost if students don't have a Quad or Janice's Uris Library at all?

Janice obviously wasn't talking about virtual education, exactly, but the hint of pushback against increasing isolation and a fundamental change in the college experience, even while still within the confines of ivy-covered halls is only the tip of the iceberg as students as young as Kindergarten and 1st grade begin looking at fully online institutions as they select their schools.

Perhaps, as one individual I spoke with after my talk on Tuesday suggested, even more important than the loss of some of college's more important social components was our potential loss of humanity and ethical fortitude as online education and technically-oriented schools made it easy for students to simply acquire skills. Those skills, though utterly necessary to be competitive in the job market, don't necessarily address the critical thinking, moral fiber, or truly human portions of an education that shapes good citizens as well as top-notch engineers (or mathematicians, or doctors, or whatever).

I, however, am the vice president of marketing for a company that provides a virtual learning platform. Virtual classrooms, a marketplace to connect learners with independent educators, the whole nine yards. I wouldn't be making a career of convincing people that this is a good idea if I didn't believe that it had an incredible amount of value.

This isn't to say that I think we should just put our elementary students in their rooms with a computer, enroll them in a virtual academy, give them a Club Penguin account for socialization, and hope for the best. Fully virtual learning environments are not for everyone and even the students they suit well need to find their own sources of socialization. It needn't be one or the other though, and we also must recognize that part of the "differentiated instruction" we hear so much about needs to include providing an environment that best supports an individual student's learning.

Next: So who can really benefit from virtual learning environments? »

Let's take the kid who is actively involved in the arts: community theater, dance, performances, recitals. For him, a traditional 8:00-3:00 schedule gets in the way of his passion and talent. A virtual environment lets him learn on his own time and his own pace. At the same time, no one could say that he is missing out on important socialization. One kid's experience of youth (especially of education) doesn't have to match another kid's experience for it to be positive and rich.

My oldest son is commuting to college. We happen to live close to a school with a well-ranked program that matches his interests. In fact, about half the undergraduates in his school commute. Whenever possible, he takes one of many online courses offered by his school to reduce the amount of time he spends getting to campus. It saves us thousands of dollars (even with the cost of gas) and he pursues social and job opportunities off campus. He's out with friends almost every night. I'm not the least bit concerned that the frat parties he's not attending will make him less well rounded. Nor is my bank account.

Now what about the kid in Tanzania who has no means to attend a university in Dar es Salaam or abroad, but his village does have Internet access due to some investments by Intel and the Gates Foundation. He can access OpenCourseWare from MIT, English classes on WizIQ, and ultimately even earn an associates degree from a US community college with online degree programs. Hardly the traditional college experience that is so easy for many of us to glorify, but no less valid and no less useful to his village when he can teach or run for political office or begin a business. And as for humanity, many of the world's students (or student hopefuls) don't have the luxury of late-night chats over clove cigarettes and expensive coffee, frisbee on some well-manicured Quad, or even (unfortunately), a seminar with an outstanding professor and passionate fellow students.

Do students miss something when they use virtual education to merely acquire skills? Is the element of morality and critical thought stripped from their education? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes acquiring skills is the best they can do. Other times, the ability to earn a degree online gives them the flexibility to take more classes in their areas of interest and fit in those character-building liberal arts courses. And, more often than not, students accessing virtual learning platforms have lives that are sufficiently full outside of school that they may be missing an archetypal school experience but are hardly missing out.

Online learning experiences can be powerful supplements to in-class experiences, can replace them entirely, can make for totally individualized education, or can be utter disasters for students without the supports or motivation to make them work. Some schools actually bring virtual classroom tools into the classroom to engage students and improve collaboration, embracing the so-called "wall of laptops." Even at the elementary level, virtual education has allowed bright students to excel, students with anxiety disorders and autism to participate, and struggling students to get more immediate help and feedback than they could in a traditional setting.

I don't mean to paint virtual learning as a completely rosy alternative to traditional classroom education. It isn't perfect and, frankly, is too much in its infancy to expect perfection. However, its role in education is growing quickly, the tools and pedagogy are maturing rapidly, and virtual learning, whether blended with traditional education or standing alone, means compelling new opportunities for learners and teachers alike.

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