I was at first disappointed that my favorite Learning and the Brain conference has as its topic "Educating the Whole Student: Using Brain Science for Smarter, Happier and Healthier Learners." I was hoping for something similar to last year's conference, "iGeneration: How the Digital Age is Alterting Student Brains, Learning and Technology." Indeed, it was that last conference that ultimately brought me to the MOOC. However, the new conference, with its focus on "teaching hearts and minds," "strengthening social-emotional skills," and "encouraging ethics and collaboration" among other topics, falls neatly into a question others and I have been pondering: How much does the physical academic environment matter? Do we need to learn in a "learning space" with physically present teachers and peers? I think in many instances we do.
I come to the MOOC with the perspective of an elementary teacher, which is somewhat different than many of the participants, but I think the social environment may be important at all levels of education. The one-to-one connections between student and teacher and between student and classmate may well be part of the learning process and I'm not sure how well we can replicate that with e-learning.
I've run across a few scenarios recently which have emphasized to me the importance of the direct human connection. In response to a blog post about math homework help, someone recommended a math tutoring website to me. The first thing I wanted to know was how the tutoring was conducted. Could the student and tutor see what the other was doing in real time? My thought was that on-line tutoring might work for review, for example, taking a quick look at a Mathtrain video might remind a student of a concept, but that the initial teaching must at least be synchronous to keep the learner engaged. There is research to support this. In her blog, Joanne Jacobs references a recent study of the Apollo turnaround schools in Houston, Texas. In that study, it was intensive tutoring with a person, rather than tutoring on a computer that raised math scores.
The importance of the in-person tutoring may have to do with the ability to adapt. It is time for my principal to observe me teaching. As part of the process, I need to submit a lesson plan showing how I will introduce the topic, use direct instruction, modeled instruction, guided practice, etc. I have made the lesson plan, but all the while I recognize that if I stick to the "best laid plan", I may not teach very well. When I am actually teaching, I need to be able to analyze both verbal and non-verbal clues as my lesson progresses. I need to assess interest, comprehension, ability to apply the learning, and student involvement. I need to take advantage of "teachable moments." It is this application of teaching skills that makes teaching so different when standing in a classroom than it appears in a credentialing class lecture hall, just ask any student teacher.
Moreover, a teacher's impact may occur outside academics. Thanksforteaching.us is a website that Vicky Davis mentioned in her blog. Here different people have posted letters to thank teachers for the impact they made on their lives. I found it both thought-provoking and invigorating to see how much impact a mentoring teacher can have. Can an on-line teacher sit through lunch with a student who can't understand math because he's having a bad day at home? Can an on-line teacher encourage a struggling student when she seems him hanging outside the grocery score with his friends? I don't think e-learning can replicate that connection.
In the end, I suspect we will need to maintain a balance between the efficiencies of e-learning and a the adaptability and emotional connection available in a face-to-face "learning environment." As e-learning evolves, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of our classrooms and other learning spaces.