Virtual Learning and Social Currency

There’s a scene in the movie The Internship that really hits home for me. It’s when Vince Vaughn’s character (middle aged) is anxiously studying tech terms for the following day’s big Google challenge when the undercover head of talent acquisition (who pretends to be a nerdy, anti-social intern) gives him a pep talk to ease his fear of failure. He tells Vince that he has an amazing way with people and is expert at the fine art of building relationships. In contrast, he says, most young people (like himself) can hardly maintain a conversation without texting. In an age when a young person bursts out in tears for being pulled off the line at an Apple store the day they launch iPhone 6 or when progressive educators advocate for 1:1 Learning Environments (which puts a laptop front and center in the learning process), I have to ask: what impact will this new age techno philosophy have on future generations?
In 2003 when I decided to become a pioneer in a new on-line educational leadership Ph.D. program (designed for the most part for military officials who lived in the field), I was ecstatic to find I could engage in learning and independent research from the comforts of my own home; not to mention connect with others who lived hundreds of miles away and obtain a doctoral degree while still raising two small children without having to hire a nanny. The benefits were enormous back then but upon completion of the degree and reentering the real academic world of my peers, I realized I had lost the opportunity to establish critical partnerships with those in my field that later translates into contacts. The traditional social network in academia leads to jobs, further research and ultimately the much needed “social currency” for anyone who wants to teach at the university.
My personal virtual learning experience in addition to my work as a professional development specialist that has given me the opportunity to work with schools nationally has led me to question the total ‘value-added’ of virtual learning and, furthermore, to consider the complexities involved in making virtual learning meaningful at a time when blended learning, the flipped classroom, on-line educational platforms and home schooling vis-à-vis the internet are becoming popular alternatives to the traditional classroom, and greatly, I might add, in response to the challenges inherent in ‘face-to-face’ learning environments—attendance, student engagement, lack of differentiation, access to quality teachers and up to date information, to name a few. What are we gaining and what are giving up when we consider virtual learning? Should it ever be an all or none approach for education?
I recently read Jeremy Stayer’s dissertation on the flipped classroom (which coincidentally was published in 2007 the same year I finished my on-line degree) where the findings indicated that students in the flipped classroom (flipped means students learn new information on-line at home and come to class to engage in discussion and complete assignments with the guidance of the teacher) were less satisfied and experienced unsettledness or a feeling of being “lost,” as compared to the students in the traditional classroom. He does an excellent job in his dissertation teasing out many of the variables that can be associated with this (sense of self-efficacy, comfortability, structural inputs, amount of reflection imbedded in the course on process and so on) all which contributed to my own thoughts about virtual learning. His article propelled me to reflect about myself as a learner and my proclivity for distance learning. I asked myself what I would have needed during the program and after the program for it to have been completely successful and worth the investment.
Virtual learning requires a tolerance for ambiguity for the process and troubleshooting (we know a lot about what works but compared to best practices in traditional teaching and learning, we are still just beginning to scratch the surface). Much of the frustration students and teachers experience with virtual learning is with the actual technology. For example, in my last position working with schools in Providence where technology is outdated and lagging as compared to many districts across the country, I found it unfair that students (and their well-intentioned teachers) were assessed by how they scored on computer based interventions when the computers were unreliable, the infrastructure in the school lacking and technical support non-existent for the most part. I recall visiting many classrooms to find discouraged teachers who fought daily with recalcitrant laptops that took fifteen sometimes twenty minutes to boot up. Many of them resorted to waiting it out for half the period while some disregarded the computer based interventions altogether. Unfortunately, regardless of the case, students’ performance (and teacher evaluations) were linked to these interventions and aligned with the assessments. Problems associated with technology and infrastructure is crucial to understanding the challenges and benefits of virtual learning. The challenges are clear but we can make an argument that students faced with technical difficulties learn skills in problems solving, persistence and resilience. As for my own personal experience going through a very new on-line Ph.D. program, I remember feeling frustrated when the professors struggled with the presentation format (it wasn’t blackboard at that time). We lost valuable teaching time getting everyone together and on the same page rather than discussing content.
Virtual learning requires that teachers provide encouragement, feedback and positive reinforcement in creative ways, continuously. The feeling of being ‘lost’ or ‘unsettled’ might be a natural feeling when engaging in independent research so I wonder how developmentally ready students in middle and high school are to tenaciously sift through inordinate amounts of information easily gotten from the internet. It’s almost like being in a supermarket and seeing twenty to thirty different shampoos each with a different purpose and package. How do you know which one to choose? Are there really that many viable options when you really just want clean hair? And finally, how does one combat the mere exhaustion of having to read the labels of so many bottles before choosing? Even for many adults, research is difficult. It requires critical thinking skills, the ability to classify and synthesize multiple sources (giving credence to some more than others) and being able to stick with a project long-term independently. Too much choice, too much information, too much freedom may create the problem of saturation and a feeling of detachment in young adults. With the amount of information out there and access to social media, students will need targeted reinforcement and guidance that will help them build the skills, the stamina and motivation to be successful.
Personalized learning refers to student centered instruction, that is teaching and learning is differentiated based on a student’s needs, interests, talents, etc.  A student undergoes several types of assessment activities in order for the teacher or school to determine how to best ‘personalize’ instruction. There is a plethora of research that supports student centered instruction as being advantageous for all students at all ages. However, a personalized approach does not negate the need for cooperative or group learning activities. How can we develop a student centered approach within the virtual learning environment? Virtual learning requires that the teacher devise creative ways to get students to interact with one another and with the community at large. Students need cooperative learning activities that provide them with the opportunity to engage in academically meaningful conversations. A good teacher can’t have a ‘hands-off’ approach and rely on the computer or on-line platform. They have to be open to redefine their role, and in the blended classroom—explore ways  to leverage the face-to-face time. For this reason, blended learning approaches are gaining momentum. In an article written by Harvey Singh published in the Educational Technology Journal in 2003, it suggests that blending traditional learning with on-line learning is most effective because it’s student centered and empowers students to take ownership of the learning process through choice but also provides them with social interactivity, relevance and context. Not surprisingly, most educational advancements point to the need to combine multiple instructional approaches for the greatest gains.
There is power in virtual learning. Virtual learning and the internet have transformed my life and everyone’s life around me. Even as I sit here at my computer at home, I look across the room and see my husband and son on their respective computers doing ‘independent’ searches and investigations that are clearly more interesting and engaging than sitting around talking about the weather (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point).  The possibilities of technology are endless and I’m forever grateful for the access to learning and life experiences virtual learning has afforded me. However, there are challenges and dangers involved in virtual learning. One is the tendency to see it as a panacea for society’s struggle with student achievement. I worry that computers will take over human beings not because it’s personalized but rather because putting a kid in front of a computer is easier. Human beings are complex organisms and in contemporary society laden with inequities, intolerance and growing distrust for our ability as a nation to educate “all” children— I fear we might choose to hide behind the computer rather than use it as a tool for authentic learning.
I believe we have the capacity to interact with each other and create learning communities that are personalized, engaging, relevant and rigorous academically. I don’t believe that building meaningful relationships should be replaced by acquiring a certain number of followers and I certainly don’t think academic inquiry should be limited by the number of characters allowed on a social networking platform. Virtual learning like everything else has its place in the evolution of knowledge exchange. However, we  have to consider the implications of our technological advancements in education and ensure that our faith in human beings as the primary source of knowledge does not falter.
This article was reprinted by Truth Out