Connected Learning | Viewpoint

The Classroom Is 'Distance Learning'; the Web Is Connected Learning

Some lament the isolating or distancing affects of the Web; yet, for educators, the Web can actually reconnect us with the natural, holistic process of learning. The Web, in fact, brings us closer to how humans learned for millennia before the five-century-long print disruption that truly was isolating and distancing.

From the first bits of clothing and the first sharpened stones, humans have augmented their capabilities with technologies. Our civilization now is so built-out that we literally live within our technologies: our homes, clothing, cars, infrastructure, even our human-developed language. These technologies mediate our reality: keeping us warmer or cooler than the atmosphere but also mediating between each other, as language does. We think of language as a way to connect, but it can also be a way to distance, to carefully avoid physical combat through negotiation, and even to separate us from each other. Considering all of the technologies humans live with or within, it is easy to understand the power of the simple phrase “what we make, makes us.”

In education, similarly, we could say “what we adopted, designed us.” Those who study how adults learn--students in college should be considered adults in terms of learning capabilities--point to experience, authentic experience--actually going to the field to see birds rather than looking at pictures in a book, for example--as the place where learning starts. From experience, say learning researchers of the last 30 years, a person develops perceptions and, over time, those perceptions may be formed into discipline-specific conceptions with the help of an expert. However, what we have adopted in formal education most often distances students from experience and starts their learning not in a field, but instead, at the conceptual level.

This is how the classroom can correctly be viewed as distance learning. Despite all the good things that can and do happen in the classroom--the discussions and group work, forming bonds over time, getting As, and so on--most classrooms do not afford authentic or experiential learning.

At the dawn of writing, we see the beginning of separating the known from the knower. With print and the eventual spread of literacy and inexpensive books, the degree of separation from experience--save for novels or poetry that are the experience--became greater and greater. People who experienced events or engaged in studies wrote books; others read those books and became “experiencers once removed;” others aggregated related topics into collections or textbooks and so were “experiencers twice removed;” still others interpreted the collections or textbooks for students and at that point were “experiencers thrice removed;” students listened to the interpreters and, alas, then became “experiencers ‘quadrice’ removed.” (Actually there is not even a word for experiencing something four times removed from the experience.)

And yet, learning starts with experience, not with experience four-times removed. In art class, students do experience directly; in a science lab, students do experience directly; in sports, the same. In fact, in many of the high-impact learning practices (George Kuh)--such as community-based learning, experiential learning, internships, and so on--students return to actual experience. The principle of starting learning with experience exists on campuses. But such examples are not yet the norm.

To be fair, students doing something--having the actual experiences that are at the root of the disciplinary dialog--was hard to manage logistically in years past. But, the Web has changed that. Students can collect evidence of the experiential work they do by using technology--sensors or cameras or digital recorders and so on--and then weave that evidence preserved on the Web into the process of connecting their perceptions to disciplinary concepts.

We do not need to separate students from experience any longer. We can, should, and will re-institute a more natural process of learning. The Web allows us to re-capture the learning process that has always worked best.

If students are doing, the teacher can simply monitor activities at a distance and do much less of the four-times removed talking than usual. (Some teachers are researchers, of course, so they may not be removed at all.)

Ironically, in the popular imagination, the Web distances learners and teachers and “face-to-face” is more desirable, while in reality “face-to-face” can be the most distancing and the Web the most connected. It is odd to realize that in many higher education classrooms, we find the real “distance learning.”

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