The Huffington Post recently ran an interesting column by Jodi Beggs, in which she contends that the advent of online education has the potential to create a winner-take-all model for education similar to that of the entertainment or sports industries: With the world having access to the world’s best, a few superstars, she predicts, will captivate the attention of the masses while the more regional, smaller-scale stars will fade in popularity.
Similar to how the world will (claim not to but ultimately still decide to) watch LeBron James announce in a one-hour primetime special this Thursday which team has the right to pay him millions of dollars, top teachers would be in a position to reach the masses all at once, and their just-not-quite-good-enough counterparts will, like those slightly less talented than James, fade toward the obscurity of the small-town circuit.
As purveyors of both online education and in-person, regional education, we at Veritas Prep were fascinated by the contention, which spurred on some conversation about the topic. For one, we applaud any development that allows top instructors to share their talents with the world. Veritas Prep’s Live Online GMAT courses have attracted students from Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific — small markets for GMAT prep that now, by the advance of technology, have access to worldwide Instructor of the Year winners.
Those instructors, in turn, have lauded the ease of interaction in the live online format, noting that receiving and answering student questions can be just as convenient online as it is in person, and that forming student-instructor rapport has been almost surprisingly easy to do. Stories of Philadelphia-based students wondering how to FedEx a favorite cheesesteak and beer to a California-based instructor as a thank-you, or of American instructors meeting up with international students during airport layovers just to finally put a face with the name, have become much more commonplace than we ever expected. The benefits of online education have been quick to come and easy to embrace, and Veritas Prep instructors, students, and administrators alike feel fortunate to be on the edge of a new and exciting trend.
Should Great Teachers Be Worried?
In opposition to the “video killed the educational star” mentality, however, are some of the same points that have made many of us such fans of online education. Ask any Veritas Prep instructor or student what has impressed them most about the Live Online format and they’re likely to mention in their short list of benefits that ease of interactivity and of building rapport — items that remain possible when classroom sizes are manageable, but that wouldn’t be the case under the proposed winner-take-all model. Watching LeBron James play basketball or Eminem perform in concert doesn’t require any interpersonal connection — their talents can be admired from afar without the need for the viewer to ask for clarification or for the performer to check for understanding.
Similarly, and perhaps even more of a contrast, a concert performance or basketball game comes with one primary goal to the consumer: entertainment. Should the viewer miss a song to accept a phone call or leave a game early to beat traffic, that cost-benefit analysis belongs solely to the viewer’s preference. In education, however, the goal is true understanding, which requires a higher level of engagement and commitment than does entertainment. Particularly when knowledge must be constructed upon other knowledge, missing a demonstration to take a phone call or turning off a class early can have repercussions that impact learning significantly.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Just as there are known difference between visual and audial learners, we predict (and have seen evidence) that there are differences between in-person and online learners. As you decide which format is best for you, ask yourself how you may learn best. Are you typically prone to staying engaged in educational pursuits and participating in class? If so, then you may thrive in an online environment. Do you have a tendency to become distracted easily and try to multitask? An online classroom that exists just a mouse click away from the rest of the internet may prove to be less than ideal in keeping you engaged. Do you tend to view an instructor as part “knowledge dispenser” and an equal part “personal trainer”? You may want to ensure that you’re working in a format that allows you to connect with your instructor personally to derive that motivational benefit. Do you often feel intimidated or embarrassed to participate in class as much as you’d like? A more-anonymous online format may be just the cure, allowing you to participate without the seemingly-judgmental eyes of your classmates.
So, will video kill the classroom star? Probably not. Video stars will undoubtedly be born, and deservedly so, but education is a unique world in which multiple methods of delivery are required. As any good teacher knows, the key to effective instruction is to provide learners with various methods of education so that each learner is in a position to construct knowledge in a way that allows her to build mastery of a subject. In the evolving world of educational technology, students will have opportunities to decide between elite instructors in a less interpersonal setting (be that an in-person lecture or an online video series) and more-interpersonal experiences with other instructors. As educators, we believe that our role is to eliminate the need for substantial trade-off between these options and to provide students with win-win decisions of this type, and we’re confident that students in that situation will make the right decisions for themselves.