Millennials Want to Connect

Can online learning provide and nurture all of the essential aspects of education?

April 22, 2015

​As a teacher of high school students approaching higher education next year, and as a student of some online learning myself, it is difficult for me to take the “all-in” approach of replacing the face-to-face connection of the classroom with online classes.

When I surveyed my seniors with this question, they all agreed that there might be specific courses that could benefit from being online.

Generally, most students told me that math and sciences, especially the higher levels, could be most effective in an online format.

The traditional methods of teaching these specific disciplines often does not allow for a variety of learners—the more advanced students, or those who acquire the material more quickly, often “have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.”

In these instances, many students find themselves using online videos and educational sites in order to learn more rigorously outside of class.

Therefore, the classroom experience can feel like “lost time” that they could dedicate to other classes and interests.

The only exception was in science, which often requires hands-on, process-oriented labs. Although not all labs contain engaging material that students will find interesting, being in the classroom is important in order to collaborate with others and to physically witness the processes and outcome of the classwork.

When the lab was done via computer simulation model, they reported that it did not deepen their comprehension nor feel ‘real’ enough to effectively integrate into their learning.

When we discussed the fields of study required for graduation at our high school (English, history, math, science, foreign language, physical education, art), my students divided them into two groups: Courses that should be almost solely classroom-oriented, and courses that could potentially be all online, or have a blended approach.

  • Online/Blended: Math, science (mostly).
  • Classroom: English, history, foreign language, physical education, and most arts.

What is important for these seniors is that the traditional Humanities and Foreign

Language class format, which hinges on interaction with other students, and exchanges with the teacher, remains preserved.

My students believe that, in English and History classes, without group work, as well as the opportunities to learn about how others experience, understand, and analyze the material, they would not learn as effectively.

For example, they found reading an article about the data age in Rwanda and having the opportunity to discuss the many sides of the issues as they compare and apply to their lives in ‘real time’ to be incredibly valuable. They stressed that without face-to-face interaction, these important facets of the universal human experience can be lost.

In preparing my seniors for college, I consider one of the most fundamental aspects of my role is to make the classroom experience echo the varied dimensions and expectations of the world beyond high school.

The students need to absorb and analyze a variety of rigorous texts, respond proficiently and articulately, problem solve, be proactive and receptive to critical feedback, work well with others, and, navigate through systems that do not always cater to their individual needs.

So, my question is: Can online learning provide and nurture all of these essential aspects of education?

Although, I am involved in creating the online Poetry In America modules at HarvardX, and I recognize how many thousands of people worldwide want to dissect and discuss Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, a complete virtual reality of education isn’t exactly a whole experience.

By reading the poems, delving into them through the video discussions, and writing responses, the student is engaged and learning, but still left with a certificate and a blank screen at the end of the lesson. Lost is the opportunity to turn to the student on the right or left and ask about how he or she interprets or approaches the poem.

This is how we learn to connect, interact, and ultimately develop empathy, both as individuals and as a community—and it is what the 21st-century learners in my classroom want: To continuously build and strengthen their skills while remaining connected to others.

Khriseten Bellows is a literature teacher at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts. She has taught at Lexington High for 21 years. 


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