When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, there were several members of the faculty who were wildly popular for their lectures: Among them were Nicholas Riasanovsky in Russian history, Alfred Rieber in European history, Martin Seligman, then a rookie in psychology, now renowned for his work in learned optimism, and Stuart Samuels, who taught film as social and intellectual history and is now a film producer himself. All were brilliant scholars with impeccable academic credentials—and all were also superb one-person showmen whose full lecture halls regularly had the atmosphere of a theater packed for the hottest ticket in town. (I still recall Professor Rieber’s final lecture of the first half of modern European history when he noted that in the immediate prelude to World War I, “The lights went out all over Europe, not to go on again for 30 years…,” and then in a single motion flipped off the lecture hall lights and strode out of the room, leaving a hundred or so idealistic undergrads breathless with anticipation, not for the upcoming final, but for Al’s next semester course, which we couldn’t wait to take.)
I was reminded of this when I read a piece several months ago by Arthur Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. in the Washington Post, in which Camins recollects similarly electrifying lectures at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Camins is now a science educator, and his point was that despite the indisputable promise of technology and virtual learning as exemplified, for example, in the “flipped classroom,” in which students learn broad conceptual material on their own at home and then grapple with the material (or do their “homework” on it) in the classroom, learning live and in person has unique merits.
Camins notes, of course, that superstar lectures like the ones he and I recall from our undergrad days, can now be recorded and disseminated widely, and that we all continue to learn remotely via print and video online and off. He believes, as I do too, that such remote learning is extremely valuable. But Camins also describes the camaraderie and collaboration that stem from experiencing such learning live and in the company of classmates who are taking in the material together in real time. And of course we could also easily meet with these professors and their graduate assistants for clarification and elaboration, likewise live and in person when necessary. Camins writes that the effects on learning of the “shared social experience” of such live learning should be explored, and notes further that, “the sticky powers of inspiration, community, and meaningful use” should not be underestimated.
As an educator and, I hope, as a lifelong student, what is your take on virtual learning? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? What do students gain and lose through live versus virtual learning experiences? Post your thoughts, and we’ll explore.