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Can Anything Be Taught Online?

One of the questions facing colleges and universities is "Can Anything Be Taught Online?"
The simple answer is, no. But some of almost every topic can be taught online. I ask the question, "How Much of Topic X Can Be Online?"

When an institution wants to take a topic online, it should ask the following:
  • How much of the course content will work online, in the time allotted? 
  • How will that content be delivered? 
  • How will knowledge and skills be evaluated?
  • What technologies will be required?
  • Do potential students have access to the needed technology?

While a school cannot have a veterinary surgery practicum online, they can provide simulations and much of the background material leading up to the physical practicum. Someday in my lifetime I imagine "robot-assisted" surgeries will be common. (They exist now, but are limited to a few procedures and there are physicians present.) Still, I'd want a surgeon to have performed "real" surgery, in case the robot needs to reboot.

We all watch plenty of experts without learning how to do what they do. That's one of the problems with non-interactive video or audio instructions. You need to do things to master them.

I tell my students that watching the Food Network for years has not made me better cook. What would help is following along in my kitchen and having real people test my real food. Most of us listen to music and watch performances, yet I don't know anyone who learned to play guitar simply watching Keith Richards. Watching isn't enough. You have to do what you want to master.

It is my personal conviction that we can teach most foundational knowledge and many skills online. We can even evaluate many tasks online, assuming the student has access to the appropriate technology. Yet, there are some things we cannot evaluate online.

No culinary course could evaluate what I cook at home. But, I could videotape myself playing an instrument for a music course. It is a matter of what is being learned and how it will be evaluated.
The best online education programs recognize that effective teaching of some topics requires a serious investment in technology and training.

To teach music, you would need video and audio production capabilities for the instructors. Yes, you could use pre-recorded lessons, but most instructors have a personalized style. Plus, a teacher could demonstrate specific skills that a students needs help mastering. Pre-packed content should supplement, not replace, the course instructor.

Some topics are technologically "easier" to teach online, while these same topics might also be "harder" to teach due to the evaluation method required. I can teach basic writing skills online, but grading essays takes much longer than grading math or science quizzes. Yet, the science or math teacher might need more technology to prepare lessons.

If even 50 percent of standard course content can be online, why not put it there? For "traditional" on-campus courses, having documents, handouts, practice quizzes, audio, and video online is a great idea. It takes time, expertise, and money, but the long-term payoff is a library of reusable content. Then, instructors teaching online and on-campus can focus on the needs of each class section and each student.

Personally, I do hope to have most of my course content online in a few short years. It will require time and effort, but it will help my students for years to come.


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