Wednesday, September 08, 2010

My Ambivalence About Online Learning

The "disruptive innovation," cost-cutting and productivity arguments for online learning have made me skeptical if not hostile to the concept, but it isn't really my natural state at all. In particular, even with limited technological tools at my disposal (and a relatively brief period as a classroom teacher), I saw this sort of thing several times:

I think often of one of my students, a 17-year-old whose charge was serious enough to keep him detained at Youth Services Center for close to four months. He, like many other DC kids his age, struggled mightily to read aloud. When I first got to know him, he outwardly refused to participate, trying to disguise his ignorance with fake bravado, eschewing my encouragement, directing anger toward me when I would approach him with a worksheet, or a question, or simply a handshake. The times I heard him say, "You know I ain't working, mo!" were countless. ("Mo" is the local kids' way of saying "dude," or "man," or "bro.") But I tried different ways of talking to him, offering little incentives here and there, and he gradually responded to the positivity.

Within a month he was writing—copying other students' papers mostly, but it was a start. Every time he would copy, I would give him a fist bump and say, "Tomorrow, you're going to write more." And he would nod.

Soon he was constructing short sentences on his own. The reading barrier seemed insurmountable, though. He had no confidence at all in his ability to read in front of others. When I would ask him to read a paragraph, a sentence, even a word on a flash card, the response was usually the same: "You know I can't fuckin' read, mo! Stop asking me!"

But we kept trying. After a few months, he agreed to try a software program in which he could read words that popped onto a computer screen and say them into a microphone. He took a liking to it, locking in on the words and staying busy on the computer for up to 20 minutes at a time. But whenever I would walk behind him to try and hear him speak, he would freeze up. Sometimes he would rip off his headphones and glare at me.

We kept trying. In a one-on-one setting, he would say the words on the page out loud, in a soft mumble, and I could barely hear him.

Every day, in front of the class, I kept asking him to read. Nothing, except the same predictable outburst.

For older kids "with absolutely no positive associations in a classroom; and a local dialect driven by what the kids call 'joning'—ribbing, busting one's chops, giving people a hard time," just giving them a break from the social context and a computer to work with privately can be transformative. Even if it is not the whole answer (it isn't), it should be a part of the toolkit.


SociologyReadings said...

That is the best argument I've heard for online learning thus far. I'm generally suspicious of "disruptive innovation" as well. I've found most of the "big new things" [the SmartBoard comes to mind] as being anything but innovative, let alone useful. However, that certainly gives me pause.

Joel VerDuin said...

It's great when it is a tool in the toolkit and someone very skillful knows how and when there is a need for the wrench.

I fear though, that much of the talk today is not about appropriately selecting the right tool for the right situation, but for deciding that we all need a 1/2 inch wrench. In addition, too many people think the object is a wrench, but in reality it might really be a screwdriver (and people will happily use the wrench anyway).