Clash of the Titans: Online vs Classroom Learning

Welcome, my name is David C. Brake.  I consider myself one of those people who feels like they have lived “many lives.”  I have been a musician, recording artist, entertainer comedian, manager, teacher, business owner, startup founder, husband and father–and a smart-aleck throughout.  However self assessments are always biased, so here are some examples for you to draw your own conclusions:

The Smart-Aleck

At one point in grade school, my math teacher noticed that one of my test scores was not up with the rest of my subjects.  She pulled me aside, and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Although I appreciated that she was concerned, I also knew what she was trying to do.  I told her I wanted to be an astronaut, and she replied that I would need to know a lot of math for that vocation, so I should put forth more effort in my studies moving forward to reach that goal.  I replied that if that was the case, I no longer wish to be an astronaut, and I would appreciate if she could let me know what other occupations were math intensive so that I could make sure to avoid them in the future.  (She called my parents.)

Fast forward to the smart-aleck adult.  Continuing to make my case, below are some self-quotes that I found amusing, but the recipients at the time did not:

“I am considered an expert on most things that I’m not qualified to talk about.”

“If you look around and see you are the only one working for free, reassess the priorities of your co-workers.”

“If you knew what he really thought, he wouldn’t be a politician.”

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, I will kill you.  Does anyone else find this statement ironic?”

And last but not least:

“People who get their degrees while they sit around in their underwear are either really smart, or not worth hiring.”

And it’s this one that I want to talk about.

When I said that, it was in reference to online learning.  Unfortunately, the proponent of online learning to whom I was speaking did not find it amusing, and for some reason his response brought back memories of my “astronaut talk” in grade school.  He came back with, “Is the guy who pays a quarter of a million dollars for his degree smarter than the guy who makes a quarter of a million dollars without one?”  I thought about this.  Was I smarter to avoid something I didn’t enjoy, or would it have been more intelligent to put more time and effort into grade school math?  Everything, including the consequences involved, really depends on the objective.

There was a time in my life when all I wanted was to make a great salary going on stage and playing music for three hours a night.  After actually doing it for a while, that objective changed and I had new goals, but at the time I felt that it would have been foolish to obtain a degree which would not have brought me any closer to that objective.

While I can see arguments (and even agree sometimes) that online learning is alienating or closer to research or that classroom learning kills creativity, I think maybe the battle should be less of a battle and more of a conversation about objectives.  If you throw in all variables, I believe often times it really is what you make of it.  The best classroom teachers don’t stifle creativity with a curriculum, they try to find a way to inspire it (albeit sometimes in spite of the system)—and let’s not forget that in its quintessence, students in a school can also interact and inspire each other to create. Unfortunately, Sir Ken Robinson (see the link above) is also right that too often that quintessence is left unrealized.

As for online learning, while it may not be optimum in some situations, in others it can be very effective—and  in areas where nothing else is available, one could easily argue it is much better than the alternative of having no one to turn to for guidance.  Yes, proponents of online learning will say there are many who have benefitted, and there is no doubt that there are also many who stand to benefit.  Let’s hear what Bill Gates has to say on the subject. (Haha–how’s that for a segue?  I actually agree with much of his argument though, and even though he is selling software, projects like Khan Academy and DotLRN are a brilliant success thanks in no small part to his help.)

Maybe what’s really interesting now at this time in history is the fact that soon online vs classroom learning may not need to be a choice.  Enter Coursera: now you can even take Ivy League classes while you sit around in your underwear—at no cost to you. Interestingly (and not coincidentally), although it is the same coursework given and graded by the same professors, the classes are apparently not accredited.  This is a point of contention raised by some of the students.  (“What do you expect for free?” says the University… “Not much in this country,” says the world traveler…)

The point is that no one method of learning is “better” than another, but rather that learning should be judged by what is most effective and what is available for each individual at any given time.  And that’s where comes in, with an idea that’s been floating around in one form or another as far back as 1971.  At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is that classroom and individual learning do not need to be mutually exclusive any more than online and physical, or instruction and research.  Rather, there will (and should) be more choices available for each and everyone’s needs and applications.  In short, it is what you make of it, and that’s probably something we can all agree on—even if you’re a smart-aleck.

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