When you think of your childhood school-time, chances are that your memories are very similar to those of many other people from all kinds of generations, countries or cultures and look something like this:

“Sitting in rows, facing a teacher and blackboard, we were pretending to pay attention, hunched over worksheets, surprise exams or (mostly boring) books until the bell rang.”

classroom via estock_commonswiki_387897_lAlthough pedagogues and fresh school teachers are bristling with new and exciting “alternative” ideas, most of the time – learning in school is not much of a mystery. We know the drill: Written performance, appearance in class, grades, etc. Been there, done that.

Surprisingly, even the differences between a – let’s say 2nd grade in an average public school and a standard group language-course for adults in major institutions aren’t that large as one might expect. This is what we’ve come to know as “learning” – it’s what everybody does. So why challenge it?

Nevertheless, many people talk about a need for reforms concerning traditional modes of learning. Sir Ken Robinson even demands a completely new paradigm of education in order to shift from an enlightenment area industrialized factory-style education to something more subtle and based on the needs of individuals.

While all of these discussions are very beautiful, brimming with insights into cultural history and asking us to re-think the status-quo, it is many times overlooked, that we are already swimming in a sea of alternatives!

Online Learning is not just a huge field, barely contained within its term; The lack of interest or willingness to even consider its importance as a viable alternative and extension to traditional learning is of equal dimension in contemporary culture.

Now, let’s look at some of the things that can be done online and that are already being done everywhere except in mainstream education!

1. Online Learning as Independent Self-Study

It has become so common these days to do quick researches online with a few clicks that we might not be fully aware of the consequences this has for traditional education:

We don’t need to go to school or university to acquire information. Not only does it cost more time, effort and money (fuel & public transport) to move physically, the person we’ll be faced with, our teacher or mentor will always provide us with less information than a quick search online.

Sure, human beings have advantages to machines. More about this further down. But if it comes to mindlessly storing and retrieving  facts (in detail) from vastly different fields – no human mind can match the crowd-sourced pool of information which is the Net. The same is true for libraries. Instead of books containing all the information available to us, books are now contained within a much larger spectrum of information. They are important, yes. But they are by far not the only or best source of knowledge.

We are seeing a shift from a situation of scarcity to one of over-abundance, not just in economics but also education. Yes, even considering all the talk about “crisis”, there is more than enough for everyone. Yet, many people still choose to live with a sense of “not enough” – it might make acquisition of knowledge appear more noble, more special, who knows?

But knowledge is not the problem! Learning the right things for the right reasons at the right time, is.

2. Online Learning as Interactive Self-Study

Apart from learning on what day Columbus discovered America and how many stomachs a cow needs to do its daily round of digestion, another reason why we needed to spend so much time in schools is because of the feedback necessary for our progress.Vocabulary, for example, has to be repeated and repeated until it’s stored. Traditionally, we were drilled by human beings. Standing up in class and presenting multiplication tables or irregular verb conjugations. Teacher saying yes, saying no. Nodding, shaking his head.

Notice something about this particular feedback? Yes – it’s binary. It’s either or.

This, again is a field where unfortunately the human brain does not excel as well as our digital assistants.

In short: Out-sourcing right/wrong feedback operations to interactive software frees up both time and mental capacity of the mentor to focus on what he does best. More about this, later.

Vocabulary trainers in and of themselves are nothing new. But if you plug this technology into the Net, it becomes even stronger. Whereas a person used to sit alone at home and drill vocabulary with a lonely sheet of paper, he can do this now within the context of an online community. Not only can he see how his friends are doing. The statistical details of the feedback provided by machines can tell him exactly how many times he missed what exercise, etc. The first aspect can help in terms of motivation. The second in identifying and targeting the short-comings.

Especially for children, a lot can be done here in terms of “reward systems”: mini-games can be unlocked, credits acquired which then can be used to purchase virtual goods within the community, and so on and so forth.

3. Online Learning as a context for Study Groups

Has it ever happened to you that you needed to visit a friend’s house at the other side of town because you had to do a presentation together? Apart from the simple social satisfaction that sitting around a table and drinking coffee can bring, there is no reason why you can’t do this online. Not the drinking coffee! The studying, or pretending to study (while discussing yesterday’s party). Especially if study groups have to meet frequently, if there are many questions, (or if there’s just too much “news” to share) etc. it doesn’t always make sense to be there “in the flesh”.

One has to note that a big part of why study groups work is the social part of it: The comfort of being in “the same boat”, of supporting one another actively and passively by correcting and explaining, asking questions, etc. This, no computer can replace. But you can use computers to facilitate this analog human connection.

4. Online Learning as Replacement or Extension of the Classroom

Imagine you are can see your teacher and his whiteboard on your screen while he is hundreds of miles away. Imagine you click a button to “raise your hand” and your teacher calls on you, you get “permission to speak” and you ask a question. Imagine there are 10-20 other students just like you, whispering to each other via the integrated chatroom.

Every day, thousands of students are already learning in this manner.

This is what is often called the “Virtual Classroom”.

The underlying concept is to re-create the conditions of a real classroom. While that may or may not always be a good idea (3D simulations of actual classrooms have proven to be simply too complicated and distracting) – it works.

Your classroom could contain people from 10 different timezones. Some of them might have to be true night owls and morning larks to attend. But the possibilities for collaboration and exchange on a global scale in terms of culture & language are simply mind-blowing.

Again here, we have a computer facilitating human connections! Instead of a human “speaking” to or interacting with a machine, we have machines enabling people to speak to each other.

If there are technological problems, this can be very annoying, especially when dealing with large groups: It ranges from choppy audio/video to lack of synchronisation between the participants to microphone noises like feedback and distortion, etc.

In the future, when Internet speed will rise even in developing countries and overall connectivity will improve, this might be less of a problem, but as we all know: When there are too many things that can go wrong, one of them eventually will go wrong. The classroom situation is a complex one, whether off-line or online.

5. Online Learning as Private Coaching or Tutoring Sessions

This is basically the same as learning in a virtual classroom, only minus the gadgets, presentation-style broadcast approach and classmates.

It’s the minimalist approach. I’ve spoken about it before.

The obvious benefit here is that since the set-up is a lot less complex, the likelihood of having to deal with technological issues is far smaller.

The ideal case is that you have two people talking together. Instead of having one sender and many receivers as is often the case in the classroom scenario, here we have two people which ideally connect on an equal basis.

And while one person plays the role of teacher or guide and the other the role of student, this is also a perfect model for doing language exchanges, in which both parties switch roles, depending on the target of the current session.


In my experience, people often prefer complaining about short-comings to using what’s available in a new, positive way!

I’ve spoken very broadly here about technologies and usages to give a general idea of what is possible so that you can’t say you’ve never heard about it!

So, instead of lecturing on the importance of changing paradigms or philosophizing about why traditional education doesn’t seem to work, why not simply use the tools that everybody is already using?

In many more cases than seemingly viable, online learning can replace a big chunk of what we now call education: the brick & mortar business of being a product in the “knowledge factory”.

Where it can’t be replaced it can be extended.

The time has come to admit it.

Human beings are not machines. We don’t need to know everything. Instead of filling our brains with information which is always within reach and perfectly managed by digital libraries, why not use our time and efforts to find out what makes us human?

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