5 Ways We're Diminishing Learning by Assuming Face-to-Face Instruction Is Best

It's interesting that face-to-face instruction is still the measure by which all other forms of instruction are evaluated. As the standard model of instruction for decades, it's often assumed to be the proven method, while other methods have yet to prove themselves. This assumption is not only misleading, but it might also be helping to diminish potential opportunities of better learning for our students.

As educators we know that many face-to-face meetings with students do not produce constructive outcomes, and many students struggle with this form of instruction. So why can we not see our schools opening up the possibilities for teachers and students and including more options as part of the mainstream? While individual teachers can experiment with online technology and new forms of delivery, it should be legitimized as an effective mainstream form of instructional delivery, rather than an alternative for a few students.

Assumptions That Prohibit Learning
Assuming that face-to-face instructional exchanges are always more effective is a dangerous assumption. Many teachers struggle with making classes relevant and interesting for students, and, more often than not, students are passive in the process rather than actively learning new knowledge. Most schooling is still based on preset standards and suited to specific testing in that preset area.

But true learning takes place when students are fully engaged in the process and actively developing their own ways of thinking and applying new knowledge in a meaningful context of use. Of course, not all online instruction provides this kind of opportunity either, but it simply cannot be assumed that online will be any less effective in this regard than face-to-face instruction.

To assume this is to encourage a lack of true measurement of learning in either mode.

In fact, recent studies have shown that using online technology and creating communities of learning through digital connections has proved to be more useful to learning than most face-to-face encounters. So making the assumption that face-to-face is more effective can become prohibitive for our students.

Indeed there are specific disciplines that perhaps more students do not focus on because they have never really understood how to think successfully in that discipline. For example, math is not only about the application of rules in varying situations and the correct formulation of solutions based on set tasks, but it is a way of thinking. Math is about logic and about understanding how the world connects and relates. Rather than waiting until those few students who do show enough focus make it through to graduate school, how about opening up the minds of school-aged children to begin thinking like mathematicians and be able to deduce, apply, and analyze in various situations? Again, while this does not automatically happen in any instructional setting, assumptions cannot be made either way. In fact, with more exploration, perhaps individualizing the learning of each student within a community of learners, as in a digital environment, might better produce the kind of thinking in our students that math teachers would love to see.

Teacher Preparation Using Ineffective Methods
Of course, the reality is that regardless of delivery mode, teachers must be educated in new and changing methodology in order to maximize opportunity. That is, teachers who see classroom management as a measurement of learning are in danger of missing the point. Additionally, online teachers who count posts are also missing the point. That point is that learning is much harder to achieve and is a dynamic and ongoing process; that the most significant skill we can teach our students is now to learn.

Often in an online environment, immediate contact with students and direct communication opportunities mean that teachers are more likely to understand their students' thinking and intervene in a relevant way that will support their learning progress. Again, making assumptions as to which mode of delivery is more effective does not address the central issues of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development in teaching effectiveness.

One of the greatest benefits of Internet technology in instruction is the public nature of the technology and the opportunity for publication and peer-review legitimization. Again rather than waiting for students to enter graduate school, why is it not mainstream to expect students at any age to publish their ideas in a specific context to a wider public anywhere in the world to see how their ideas are either legitimized or critiqued by peers? Training teachers to facilitate learning networks and to managing collaborative work is vital to effective teaching and learning in the digital world.

Lack of Funding and Resources
Not long into any conversation with a school administrator or teacher, one finds that the central challenge is usually funding. Funding, however, is prioritized based on what is accepted as best practice and what is mainstreamed in education. As long as online instruction is seen merely as an alternative for a few or is deemed to be inferior to a physically present teacher and student group, those priories will never change.

So how can we change this reality?

Those teachers who are the early adopters, those fearless teachers who have experimented with new technology and new teaching methods and who have been tireless in their pursuit of teaching excellence and learning effectiveness, should not be marginalized, as they often are, but should be encouraged. I would suggest that more school principals begin showcasing the good work that teachers are doing to school boards and communities. And I'd suggest that more teachers actively seek funding and be given time to write grants that will increase the possibilities for new methods and new modes of delivery to be integrated into the regular school experience.

Let us reclaim the idea of inquiry-based learning and learning for learning's sake.

Lack of Inclusion of New Technology
I would suggest that as long as we refer to certain technology as "new," we may not take it seriously, which, in turn, could limit its acceptability or force it to remain on the margins as "optional," rather than essential. It also reinforces the assumption that what is "old" (instruction without these certain kinds of technology) is well tried and true for students.

The reality is, however, that we still do not have real measures for learning or effective teaching in most schools because the system demands test scores, not learning assessment. Additionally, what is usually described as new technology is Internet-based technology, Web 2.0 tools, and various multimedia resources. The majority of our current students have already integrated social networking tools into their daily lives, use the Internet regularly, and experience multi- and mixed-media environments as a normal part of their world.

Even those students who may not have much personal wealth and who may see only public uses of technology still know what the purpose is and want access to the same technology more and more. Therefore this is not "new" but regular. And, therefore, as learning is an extension of social interaction and cognitive processes, we can engage students more effectively by integrating these technological tools rather than excluding them from the learning environment.

Measuring Inadequately
In thinking about measuring learning, we must think about the process of learning--the reality of the ongoing connections between content and students, and students and students, and students and teachers, and the connections to the wider context of use.

How can we measure that? As we have already discussed, it most definitely cannot be measured in a test of preset information. How can you measure the value of the instructional exchanges and connections and the effect on thinking and behavior? My sense is that rather than focusing teachers on better skills in test writing and grading, we might be better off teaching teachers how to observe within a given context, how to actively listen, and how to deduce knowledge from information. Only then can we hope to begin to measure the learning that is taking place.

We have some tools we use like journals (digital and hard copy) and blogs, wikis, and micro blogs, but do we really have teachers in general who truly observe learning? Or are teachers simply looking at task completion? Do we respect the minds of our students and take care of how they think and how technology can stimulate response and engagement, or are we simply waiting for some easy way to count and grade? While I do not propose a simple ready-made solution here, I do encourage more critical thought and exploration into the kinds of skills we need as teachers to understand the processes of learning and to measure them adequately.

Making any kind of assumptions about learning is, of course, dangerous and diminishes the possibilities for students precisely because what we think we know influences ongoing decisions and planning. New technology provides us with new possibilities; however, we are still facing a very old challenge of actually measuring the learning that is taking place regardless of delivery mode. What is particularly disheartening, however, is assuming we have already proved something we have not and basing ongoing decisions and practices on that assumption. It means that not only will we be slow to change, but students will lose out on what could happen if they were given the opportunity.