A growing body of research has all but obliterated the notion that distance education is inherently less effective than classroom education. But even the most ardent distance-ed evangelists cannot deny persistent evidence suggesting that students are more likely to drop out of online programs than traditional ones. The phenomenon has many explanations, not least the fact that what often makes students choose the flexibility of online learning — being too busy to enroll in a classroom course — can also make it harder for them to keep up with their studies.
But Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara City College, believes there is another major factor driving the gap between retention rates in face-to-face programs and those in the rapidly growing world of distance education: the lack of a human touch.
And unlike the reality of adult students’ busy lives, Hersh says the human-touch problem can be solved. In fact, he thinks he knows how.
Hersh’s solution is to incorporate more video and audio components into the course-delivery mechanism. Most professors who teach online already incorporate short video and audio clips into their courses, according to a 2009 by the Campus Computing Project. But it is rarer, Hersh says, for professors to use video of themselves to teach or interact with their online students — largely because the purveyors of major learning management systems do not orient their platforms to feature that method of delivery.
That is why Hersh convinced Santa Barbara in 2008 to abandon Blackboard, the LMS industry leader, in favor of Moodle’s open-source platform, which he used to build the straightforwardly named “Human Presence Learning Environment.” The interface is designed so that professors can deliver lessons and messages using videos recorded with a Webcam. It also shows students who among their instructors or classmates are logged into Skype, the video-chat service, in case they want to have a live, face-to-face conversation. As an alternative to text, students using computers that have built-in recording equipment can post audio responses to discussion threads.
. . . For Hersh, engagement goes hand-in-hand with audio-visual communication. The more that exchanges occurring within an online learning environment resemble those that occur in classrooms, he says, the more that students will feel connected to their professors and classmates, and the more likely they will be to stay in a program.
. . . Hersh admits that this return to the emotional dynamics of face-to-face learning may come at a cost: The text-based medium that currently dominates online learning environments may eliminate the prejudices and distractions inherent to visual communication, making conversations in text-based learning environments more focused.
But communicating solely via text is also alienating, says Hersh. Weighing the theoretical advantages of purely textual discourse against the demonstrated engagement benefits of presence-oriented teaching, the latter wins, he says.
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