What online learning CAN’T do: Why face-to-face still reigns

What online learning can't do

Online learning has revolutionized education. But it can’t do what face-to-face teaching can. (Flickr / Missoula Public Library)

As a Spanish teacher, I hear it time and time again.

“What do you think of Rosetta Stone?”

I hear it from parents of my students mostly. Family and friends ask sometimes, too.

When they ask me that question, I don’t think they’re really looking for a product review of language-learning software.

They really want to know something a little deeper.

“Can you truly acquire a new language with your computer/smart phone/tablet?”

My answer is generally that, in my opinion, you can get the basics and some semblance of language acquisition, but there’s nothing like face-to-face conversation.

To take that question further, those parents may be thinking what I’m pretty sure much of the world is wondering.

“Can online learning take the place of face-to-face learning?”

I think much of the non-education world thinks it’s a no-brainer. Why, they may think, should we pay teachers when the same instruction can be delivered to every student anywhere on demand?

Online learning often is streamlined. It’s flashy. It incorporates those fun gadgets that we all love to play with.

It can bring the best teachers and minds into any student’s world for instruction.

Can it take the place of poor teaching with antiquated pedagogy?

Sure it can, and it has in many places. Think of how many kids Sal Khan (Khan Academy) has taught math and science to because their teachers did a lousy job.

Can it take the place of great teaching? Well, sort of, but not really.

But there are a lot of things learning from user interfaces, videos and interactive apps can’t do.

  • It can’t reach out and console a droopy-eyed student whose parents kept her awake fighting all night.
  • It can’t high-five a freshman basketball player the day after he makes his first three-pointer in a game.
  • It can’t reassure a struggling student that she matters and she can overcome an obstacle.
  • It can’t notice a new hair style, new pair of shoes or new girlfriend.
  • It can’t overhear hallway bullying and take steps to protect a child in danger.
  • It can’t guide a student to a more interesting research topic based on a years-long relationship.
  • It can’t share joy. It can’t comfort sorrow.

Relationships matter. Face-to-face matters. Technology just can’t empathize and love like a human.

So can online learning take the place of face-to-face learning?

My answer to this debate is similar to my position on Rosetta Stone.

You can get the basics and some semblance of an education.

But there’s nothing like face to face. Nothing.

(For notifications of new Ditch That Textbook content and helpful links, “like” Ditch That Textbook on Facebook and follow @jmattmiller on Twitter!)