by Wana Duhart
I consider myself to be “old school” when it comes to classroom teaching and learning, which means I prefer actually sitting in a physical space and participating in dialogue with classmates whose life experiences may or may not differ from my own. In my view, the power of real-time sharing and exchange among classmates is immeasurable and the spontaneity of what occurs in a classroom space is unique itself. However, what I’ve grown to appreciate about online learning is that its benefits and value are of another sort, primarily because there are no limitations on physical space or time.
Although certain aspects of online or virtual learning do require fixed parameters, what this format provides are infinite opportunities to collaborate, connect, and share with virtual classmates globally. In many ways, online learning signals one of the new realities of our global marketplace and the proliferation of technology, information, and social media in this early part of the 21st century. The resistance of traditionalists (like me) is slowly eroding as the cultural intrigue and acceptance of “everything virtual” has been unleashed in a really profound way.
Our means of communicating, gathering information, and learning have been transformed by the full integration of digital forces and options in practically every sphere of our lives. Online learning has the potential to “virtually” transform the educational experiences of people across ages, cultures, nations, and continents. My sense is that the real genius behind virtual learning is its untapped capacity to elevate what we actually learn and how we learn it.
The potential content and contexts of online education can be viewed as much more broader and deeper than anything we ever imagined. For example, to gain insight into student protests in the Middle East, digital media make it possible to connect with a classmate in another country to gain a firsthand perspective, instead of relying on internet research. Another example is that students can exchange live images (in place of still photos) which capture animal or plant species in their natural habitats or indigenous environments such as an African safari or the rain forest.
I used to wonder how you could replace the back and forth exchanges that often occur in physical classroom settings. What I’ve realized is you don’t replace them; you simply produce similar exchanges via digital platforms, which essentially create a totally new paradigm for student dialogue. In the 20th century, we pushed hard for diversity in our physical learning spaces, but in this century, we no longer have to fight at all for that same diversity, because it’s a mouse click or finger touch away.
The one thing I’ve also grown to appreciate about 21st century teaching and learning is that the whole paradigm has shifted. All of our traditional modes and frameworks for education are gradually being replaced or complemented by innovative approaches that are expanding our imaginations and possibilities for collaborating, connecting, and sharing.
Like most innovations, we probably misread the promise of online learning initially, because we viewed it as a “substitute” for physical classrooms, when in essence, online learning is a completely new approach to education. Our mistake was that we tried to imagine virtual learning through an “old school” lens.
Wana Duhart is the Founder and CEO of Trahud Enterprises, which develops alliances in education that yield innovation, creativity, and flexibility in public schooling. and has spent three decades working in varying capacities across many sectors. She is the author of the book A Call to the Village: Retooling Public Schools and publishes her own blog, The VillageSpace.