My position on online learning

Before the virus, my position was simple. I only taught face to face, most of my classes until then had been face-to-face, and if anyone requested online, I would politely refuse and try to convince them to see someone face-to-face in their neighbourhood. I had never had any intention to change this until circumstances forced me to. And then the year 2020 happened, and the landscape changed. From 2020 on, I also do online, and I will likely have to maintain some form of online presence forever. In this article, I want to explain my past and present positions.

Teaching is a cooperative human interaction that is based on trust and correct reading and management of emotions. If a student doesn’t trust the teacher, they will not respect them, pay attention during the lessons or learn anything. If a teacher cannot read their students and control the flow of emotions, they become blind, and their teaching is chaotic and ineffective. Both of these conditions are relatively easy to meet in face-to-face interactions as the actors see one another and can fully physically interact with no latency. Furthermore, face-to-face interactions are more ingrained in the human experience, do not require any additional equipment, and allow teachers to control the lessons and their outcomes. Anyone with the right personality and enough experience can consistently deliver high-quality lessons that objectively help their students.

Online teaching is different. It can deliver good results, but considerably more conditions must be met. I will never be convinced that it can continuously deliver as good results in active learning as face-to-face interactions. The only thing that would change my mind is an unprecedented technological breakthrough in human interaction via VR and similar technologies. However, this is not very likely in my lifetime. My main issue with the online is that there are too many things that can and often do go wrong. I will not go through the whole list, but I will mention three main reasons why I have resisted online for such a long time.

The biggest problem that frequently produces poor results relates to technology – most people do not have all the equipment they need or access to a stable internet connection. Consequently, many lessons have no video, low-quality audio and only minimum interaction between the teacher and the student. Without this vital interaction, the classes are at best equivalent to free content on youtube and at worst utterly contra-productive. The bare minimum everyone needs are headphones, microphone, camera and internet that can handle HD video call (10+ Mbps). All students should obtain this minimum or find alternatives to active online learning. If you still want the interaction, choose face-to-face lessons instead; otherwise, almost any online platform and occasional consult with a teacher will have the same or even better results.

The second most common problem is the environment. Most people cannot work on challenging tasks in a noisy and distractive environment, so it is not the best idea to have a crying child, needy pet or buzzing phone next to you for the whole 2-hour lesson. Music, movies, social media or other distractions will not help either no matter what is someone trying to sell you. The deal is simple: eliminate all the distractions in your control, focus as hard as you can, interact with the tutor, and you have good odds you will learn something. Otherwise, you are just wasting time and resources.

If the ambient noise, distractions and technology are dealt with, the tutee can still sabotage any lesson. Distractions, tiredness, boredom and many other aspects of the human condition are relatively easy to control in face-to-face interactions but nearly impossible to deal with in online setup. Neither teacher nor the student can entirely see what the other is doing, and both are aware of this fact. In general, adults are easier to work with than children because they want to maximise the gains out of what they are paying for. Consequently, any counterproductive behaviour is just an unfortunate byproduct of the real world reminding itself. On the other hand, children have many conflicting motivations and can blatantly do everything else but the work they should be doing. In both cases, rules can be agreed, but why would anyone adhere to restrictions which are very difficult to police and enforce? I can offer 100 % on my side, but there are two sides to this problem.

This article does not attempt to appraise online learning as such objectively. It briefly outlines my position and preference for face-to-face teaching and gives you a few things to think about. I see the potential in passive online learning in which we can prerecord content and help the motivated to learn more on their own. In contrast, interactive online learning will remain inferior to face-to-face until new affordable technologies change the way humans interact. In the meantime, I am learning how to minimise the gap between face-to-face and interactive online, record educational videos to help the aspiring and focus more on online consultations, marking and proofreading. If you decide to take up online lessons, please resolve as many above-mentioned issues as possible and be clear what you want to get out of these lessons. Online learning is much slower and complicated than face to face, so it must be executed with more diligence to be successful.

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