E-learning does offer significant advantages over traditional classroom-based instruction, particularly in terms of convenience and cost, but e-learning is not without problems, especially when one considers that the basic premise of distance education is that all students will be able to learn under the same e-learning format.
Yet, not all students learn the same way.
Learning in the classroom
Learning can be envisioned as a two-step process. First, the student puts the message through an internal logic-check. Does the material as it's delivered make sense? Does it hang together in an understandable framework? Can I grasp the overall framework and can I place the various facts within that logic frame?
At this point, the student may be able to regurgitate facts, and even hold a short conversation about the subject. But the level of understanding at logic-check point is shallow and transient.
The second step leads to comprehension. This requires the student to work with the material. E-learning offers opportunities for the student to work through one-dimensional problems for the purpose of reinforcing facts memorized. But actual classroom experience may offer a richer experience leading to deeper, more fully realized comprehension.
Students with different backgrounds and life experiences perceive the same message slightly differently. Each will internalize a message by connecting it to his or her own experiences. Classroom teaching may offer the most efficient exposition of those various connections.
In joint discussion of a problem in class or in working together in small groups, each student is taught again by each of the other students, who show how their individual understanding, in context of their experiences, makes tangible sense.
This multidimensional exposition most effectively yields growth in comprehension of how the concept moves and works in the real world. The classroom experience provides real-world-connected testimony from fellow students.
These discussions offer the opportunity for the instructor to add further understanding by using a point made by a student to illustrate an additional experience with the concept.
Other benefits of classroom-based instruction
In addition to potential improvements in student comprehension, classroom-based learning may yield additional benefits.
* Distance education software contains excellent tools for delivering electronic presentations. Yet, there is no substitute for having students stand in front of peers to gauge the strength of presentations skills. Electronic presentations focus on the technology; in-person presentations emphasize the presenter.
* Peer pressure helps maintain the student's interest and presents an environment in which students must respond to classroom events. Instructors and classmates may see entirely different responses when a classmate must provide feedback in the presence of peers from when the student is communicating via videoconference.
* Attending classes can be arduous, especially for full-time employees who attend at night or on weekends. But the fact that students make it to class suggests a level of commitment that employers should recognize and admire.
* Classroom-based learning may make it easier for students to develop networking opportunities, which can be of help on work-related issues outside the classroom.
The business world repeatedly has been buffeted by fads, and "one solution fixes myriad problems" type thinking. With experience, the limitations of e-learning will become manifest. However, we shouldn't abandon it.
E-learning is a useful tool, especially for presenting a logical framework and a cascade of facts in advance of a class meeting. If we don't jettison e-learning altogether, it may find its proper place in the toolbox of education and training.
Robert C. Scanlon, MPA, is assistant dean of the College of Business and Public Affairs (CBPA) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Reach him at (610) 425-5000. For more information on the CBPA, visit www.wcupa.edu. West Chester University CBPA graduate degree programs and corporate training are housed at its off-campus, state-of-the-art Graduate Business Center located off the Boot Road exit of Route 202 in West Chester.