The proof of learning is change. The proof that a baby has learned to walk is that it stops crawling. The proof that a man has learned to swim is that he does not drown. Notwithstanding the occasional blunders, all successful learning is evidenced by the change in knowledge and corresponding abilities. Everybody learns – the proof being that everybody changes. Learning can be conscious or unconscious; intentional or accidental. The topic of this essay refers to the conscious aspect of learning – where an individual chooses what to learn, whom to learn it from and how to learn it. This is the foundation of the formal education – which I believe is the most structured form of intentional learning.
Advancements in technology have presented to us online learning as an alternative to face-to-face learning. And although face-to-face and online learning are merely different means serving the same purpose, it is widely speculated that the previous is more effective than the latter. I will attempt in this essay to prove the contrary – that online learning is as good as face-to-face learning.
Advantage cannot exist without a difference. An individual, product or service can only claim superiority over another of the same kind when some difference exists between the two. In both cases, the student can hear and see the teacher. So then, what is the difference between online and face-to-face learning? If we can isolate the difference, we can identify what gives one an advantage over the other. Identifying the difference will also enable us to examine the strength of that feature as a contributing factor to the success of the learning experience.
What is the difference between online and face-to-face learning? Most people may say that in face-to-face learning, the teacher is physically present with the student. Remember though that we must analyze the difference as it contributes to a more successful learning experience for the student. Therefore a better way to state the difference is that in face-to-face learning, the student perceives that the teacher is physically present with him. Indeed, all the arguments which allude to face-to-face learning as being better than online learning are predicated on the notion that this perception of the teacher’s presence by the student leads to a more effective learning experience. But is this really the case?
Pray tell, how does the perception that a teacher is physically present contribute to successful learning? Practically speaking, the student perceives that the teacher is physically with him only because the student can see the teacher. Face-to-face learning is hinged on visual perception (since students hardly go touching their teacher to make sure he is real). As soon as their eyes tell them that the teacher is physically present, the real work shifts to their ability to hear and understand what is being taught.
Consider this scenario: a group of students in a classroom instructed to close their eyes during the course of a lecture. The students, with their eyes closed, hear footsteps and a male voice which introduces himself as their teacher. The voice compliments them on their punctuality and choice of attire. Then this voice proceeds to present a lecture to this class of students with closed eyes. At the end of the lecture, the students open their eyes to discover that the teacher is standing right before them. Conversely, they could open their eyes to discover that their teacher had been speaking to them from a laptop.
If the students had previously been made to believe that the teacher was physically present and opened their eyes to discover that their teacher was not, does that imply that all they had absorbed throughout the lecture would fly out their heads? Or if they had been told that the teacher would address them via a laptop and opened their eyes to find him physically present, would their understanding of the lecture be enhanced? The answer in both cases is obviously no. Simply because the awareness of the teacher’s physical presence has no significant contribution to effective learning.
Another consideration is that the image of the teacher may merely be a hologram – and the student’s eyes see a teacher, no teacher is physically present. I would like to emphasize again that in both types of learning the student can see his teacher. Face-to-face learning simply allows the student to believe that his teacher is physically present with him. This belief may delight the student but it will not accelerate his learning. Classroom learning involves three major parts; a teacher communicating through verbal and body language, a student receiving the communication and being able to understand this new knowledge.
Most online learning platforms allow a student to see the teacher. The student sees the teacher’s smile, hears the laughter and possibly interacts via online video conferencing. The only thing online learning does not offer is that gratifying idea that the teacher is physically present. And unless the teacher’s body odor and carbon dioxide emissions can help a student learn any faster, his physical presence is unnecessary. Is online learning as good as face-to-face learning? Yes, it is.
Alexander Elorm Agbenu, a participant of AskPetersen Scholarship.