“We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”
So wrote the furious New York Times in 1877 at the introduction by Alexander Graham Bell of his new invention: the telephone. New technology is often met by such scepticism – and rightly so. Online education is just such a technology, and it is not surprising to see some parents and teachers respond to it with uncertainty. As the eminent Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard asserted last week, is not education “about eyeball to eyeball contact and interaction”?
Such misgivings are both natural and justified. Here are three questions we think parents and teachers should ask of online education providers.
Is the emphasis on teaching or independent learning?
“Correspondence courses” have been around for centuries; in fact, my great grandfather ran one for aspirational soldiers on the front in the First World War. Such courses place the emphasis on the student to take control of their learning – by reading, doing exercises, etc. Many famous people throughout history, such as Abraham Lincoln, have been “autodidacts” – but the number of such students who are both willing and capable of learning in this way is estimated to be under 10%. Many of today’s online education providers, such as the famous Khan Academy, are modern equivalents of these old correspondence courses: they rely on the students to take charge. Other online education providers, such as Keystone, believe that many students learn better from teachers than they do from self-study. Parents need to ask themselves whether their children are the sort who learn by themselves, or who need the structure and elucidation provided by an experienced teacher, and choose accordingly.
Is the education genuinely interactive?
I, like all of the Keystone team, was the beneficiary of a traditional education that was richly interactive. Can such an education be matched online? Many online education providers use the facility of the internet to massively increase the number of students that their teachers can reach. This is unproblematic when it replicates other large-group learning, such as in a university lecture hall. However, it is more concerning when it attempts to replicate the delicate, interactive experience of a small classroom. The best online teaching should require no compromises in the interactivity of a lesson; indeed, many students find the direct face-to-face nature of an online lesson more personalised and interactive than the classroom.
Is the quality of the teaching compromised?
For the same reason that outsourcing has become a feature of the modern workplace, many online education providers have used the compass of the internet to outsource their teaching faculty to countries whose teachers charge lower fees. There is not necessarily a relationship between the origin and quality of a teacher, but it is recommended that parents and students do their research before signing up to lengthy or costly programmes. Are they looking to online education to benefit from the savings, or rather to access a quality of education that they would not be able to access offline?