Blog: Catheryn Cheal

Catheryn Cheal, Ph.D. has some big ideas about technology and education. Which is fitting since she's the Assistant Vice President of e-Learning and Instructional Support at Oakland University. She'll be writing this week about the evolution of learning and technology, and its potential impact on SE Michigan.

Post No 1: Does online education educate?

When people ask me, in casual conversation, "And what do you do?" I usually say, "I teach faculty at Oakland University how to teach online." Whether the facial reaction displays mild interest or appalling surprise, I can be reasonably assured that the next question will be, "But do you think online courses really work?"

That question deserves an emphatic "Yes!" I’ve known since teaching an online art history course, beginning in 1999, that online college courses can do some things much better than face-to-face classes.

Any classroom is a careful orchestration between chaos and control. Too much chaos and the babble cancels out learning. Too much control and student minds shut down in passive boredom. It doesn’t matter whether the course is traditionally taught in the classroom or online, the teaching methods need to be carefully planned.

One advantage that the online course has is that, by definition, the lecture method is difficult to implement online so its replacement, the discussion board, has been the norm since the mid-1990s. Discussion boards or forums promote active creation of material by the students and user-generated content is what the new Internet is all about. Learning happens by doing, not by memorizing lectures.

The best online education is active and participatory. Instead of listening to lectures, the students produce lectures by posting answers to questions on a discussion board. The perceived anonymity that comes from being online means that students feel free to speak their mind, without any impediment from hostile stares or verbal interruptions. Thoughts go straight from one head to another without any interfering static of gesture, clothing, facial expression, eye contact, or hierarchic objects (like a podium). This can be very liberating and makes for a closer, quicker bond among the course participants that is particularly important for discussion-type content.

A major concept of the 1990s Internet was that of the hyperlink and how it created non-linear thinking, rather than the linear, scientific rationalism that dominated print for the past centuries. The network was envisioned as a highway, with the freedom to turn off at any byway. 

The most important concept of the 2000s Internet is that of the collective—as seen in social networking sites like Facebook, user-generated content like YouTube, social constructivism educational theory, and database mashups that combine data gathered through mobile GPS units. The image of the surfer, free and alone, has turned into a vision of a collective intelligence, twittering one another with casual, constant connections. This is a mindset that calls for a different type of learning, since what is the purpose of individually memorized data, when all information is instantly collected by Google or acquired through one’s acquaintances. The crucial skills become how to frame the right questions, solve problems, use initiative to teach oneself, and manage groups of people.

The requirement in Michigan high schools that students who graduate in 2011 had to take an online course was unprecedented in any other state. The bill was based on the belief that all students needed to be prepared for college and jobs that were increasingly technology-focused. It isn’t just the use of technology that counts as those like Fisher seem to believe or that the distance education model is convenient or cost-efficient. The point is that the concept of teaching and learning itself has changed due to technology and online education parallels that change.

I would like to know whether Michigan businesses find that their employees learning needs are changing as technology changes the way they do business.

Will an online high school course be enough or do we need to also talk about teaching methods and content in a more comprehensive way in public policy?

Fisher, K. (April 23, 2006). Michigan to require "online courses" for high school graduation. Ars Technica.