Let me begin by telling you a story.
The story began when I was in high school searching for the right college. My mom and I took a road trip the summer after my junior year of college. We took our time and covered quite a bit of ground. I discovered Hot97 in New York and Pepto Bismol in North Carolina. I fell in love with upstate NY. After our return, I began the application and interview process. The most memorable moment came during my interview with a representative from Cornell. She asked if I had any burning questions, and I decided to go ahead and ask her a question that had really been nagging at me: What is the difference between a class at Cornell and a class at a community college? She was shocked and deeply offended. She told me that anyone could get a great education anywhere they could find a library, and obviously I wasn’t right for Cornell.
This exchange has haunted me ever since. I do love to read, sure, but a library alone could never create the magic that a classroom can create. And the most magical classes happen when the students are engaged, interested, attentive, involved, participating, excited and following through with the homework. Part of this magic comes from the teacher. A great teacher can cultivate this kind of environment with ease, but most really struggle when it doesn’t happen organically.
I’m not sure everyone would agree that classrooms can be magical. I may have been spoiled with great classes. I’ve just finished a masters’ program where I loved the classes, loved the reading and loved the assignments, but I’m not sure that every student would approach school with as much relish. I love learning.
Tomorrow I begin an educational experiment. I will start a course in Social Network Analysis from Statistics.com. This is a paid course, and I’ve chosen to be held responsible for my work (you can choose whether or not to submit homework for grading). Next month, the experiment will deepen when I begin my first MOOC. The MOOC is a data analysis class that teaches R. I’m very eager to learn R and to revisit some statistical methods that I haven’t been able to use much. The experiment will not be pure, because three of my coworkers have decided to attend the class as well. We’ll be fortunate enough to experience part of the course in-person.
I’m not sure how I feel about distance education before beginning this experiment. Learning is something that I really love to do in-person. But so many things that happen online can be evaluated the same way. I recently read articles and commentary about a controversial paper on Twitter research SSRN-id2235423. The research is fodder for some great discussion, but many commenters on the news articles simply chose to trash Twitter. They bemoaned the 140 character limit so strongly that one would think that Twitter is a land of Paris Hilton’s and cats. I’d like the critics to know that yes, you can find Paris Hilton and cats on Twitter or just about anywhere else online. But you can also find something deeper, something that interests you. I recently introduced my nephew to Twitter. He’s a news junkie of sorts, and he was fascinated to see how much emerging news and quality commentary was available. The weekly #wjchat’s alone are reason to follow Twitter (#wjchat is a weekly methods chat between social media journalists) The reach of people on Twitter is unparalleled, and the ability to follow specific areas of interest in deeply engaged ways is also unparalleled. When used correctly, Twitter is a powerful tool.
Online learning as well as the potential to be a powerful tool. But it will require engagement from the people involved. We will need to suspend our natural hesitancy and develop the necessary competencies. I really hope that my classmates will be willing to embrace the experience!