You are hereWhat Can E-mentoring Contribute to the Online Learning Tsunami?
What Can E-mentoring Contribute to the Online Learning Tsunami?
The value of relationships
by David Porush, CEO
In the middle of a recession, the growing costs of higher education in the U.S. has reached crisis proportions. Tuition across the U.S. has grown more than 40% after adjustments for inflation, faster than any other normal expense faced by families, even in healthcare.
In this tough environment, and with the democratization of access to knowledge and information that the Web affords, many universities are turning to e-learning to find cost savings, achieve efficiencies, and teach more students. But there is still a healthy debate over the value of online learning and the methodologies for making it work.
MentorNet has been using the Web to deliver mentoring to students on campus for almost fifteen years. What do we have to contribute to the debate? The quick answer is: MentorNet proves that student growth and learning, both curricular or extracurricular, can be delivered online with excellence, but you must include meaningful human interactions in the equation. The quick answer is: MentorNet proves that the core values in student growth and learning, both curricular or extracurricular, can be delivered online with excellence, but you must include meaningful human interactions in the equation.
E-learning has grown since at least the 1990s and so has the vibrancy of the debate around it. It has gained unprecedented momentum this year in what has been called “a campus tsunami,” a “revolution,” and a “technological arms race” transforming higher education. MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative, Khan Academy’s great video tutorials, and other experiments bring content from professors at Harvard and Stanford online, with qualities that try to preserve some of its more esoteric values. Coursera, our neighbor here in Silicon Valley, is an especially successful start-up venture by two Stanford professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ing. At least thirteen prestigious universities have contracted with Coursera for online delivery of courses, including Princeton, Stanford, CalTech, Duke, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Rice, among others. They wrap video of professors lectures to real classes with a means for collecting homework, deliver testing, and grading at little or no costs looks like a good business proposition They are well-funded by venture capital and look like they are forging the way to one inevitable future for higher education, although again, the concerns expressed ten and twenty years ago remain.
The larger debate looks like this. On one side, many analysts suggest that faculty and their overall salary loads – one of the big costs on a campus – can be reduced by serving more students online. The work of teachers as lecturers can be broadcast as video and as homework collectors can be automated. And some well-wrought studies of learning outcomes show they do an equally good job, under the right circumstances, as traditional classroom models. (http://www.ithaka.org/).
On the other side are those who are passionate about preserving certain strong, but perhaps intangible, academic values. Faculty members are not just pedagogues but also researchers and critics and thinkers who connect their students to the frontiers of knowledge and, incidentally, bring massive funding and prestige to premiere research universities. The classroom is a lens, focused by the personality and intellect of the professor, onto a vast ecosystem of knowledge and inquiry, not only in science but into human nature, history, and culture. These aren’t fixed commodities that are captured in textbooks, but forever under debate and interrogation. At least, that’s the principle which is often lost on efficiency-seekers and business heads and university trustees and legislators funding stte universities. A good example is the kerfluffle at UVa between the governing Board, eager to “jump on the e-learning bandwagon” as Nick DeSantis puts it in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and President Sullivan, who wanted to go slowly to ensure academic values weren’t damaged.
This argument has been raging since at least the 1980s. From 2003-2007, the SUNY Learning Network for the State University of New York System successfully served more than 100,000 enrollments on 40+ campuses with 2500 professor-led, high quality, size-limited courses. As executive director of the project, this debate certainly was a sore point then. But now it has been renewed with vigor as social networks and edutech entrepreneurial ventures, like Coursera, challenge the model of conventional classroom learning.
In some senses, MentorNet’s contribution is orthogonal to the discussion, since the knowledge we enable is non-curricular or extra-curricular. Mentors engage students on career management, networking, communications, work-life balance and other issues from the real world of work which mentors, encouraging mentors to share their own experiences. But we have learned a lesson that was also clear from successful online courses at SUNY and elsewhere: the difference between acquiring information and attaining insight and wisdom – real learning – was inclusion of humanity, the relationship between people for which the technology can be a conduit. In the model of the SUNY Learning Network, also adopted by University of Maryland and other universities, the key was requiring students and professors to pay attention to each other by commenting and evaluating each others contributions to discussion, homework and papers. At MentorNet, it is “prompting” a dialogue between mentor and protégé with well-formed discussion suggestions, but the real magic is conjured between the individuals. Our prompts are a good pretext, but by themselves no more effective than the mere posting of videotaped lectures is for responsive classroom dynamic. In some senses, In some senses, these are only a bit better than textbooks, where knowledge is packaged and static. Effecting this dynamic works, whether it is occurs in real time face-to-face or asynchronously and remotely, via email.
In short, MentorNet shows us that quality, transformative learning can and does occur online. There is nothing necessarily privileged about the traditional classroom or face-to-face mentoring. In fact, these bring with them overheads and obstacles of their own. But you must find a way to include the intimacy of human contact and response in the channel.