5 Reasons I Prefer Traditional Classrooms to Massive Open Online Courses

February 18, 2013

Traditional classrooms have benefits over MOOCs


Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). I’m fascinated by MOOC’s and believe they’ll shape the future of higher education. And if you couldn’t tell by this blog, I’m a proponent of online experiences.

That being said, I recently attended an intensive, classroom-based program (to get me trained on a particular vendor’s marketing software) and that experience made me further appreciate the value of the traditional (physical) classroom.

It’s All About Your Personal Learning Style

MOOC’s have the potential to reach a global audience – and for some, they’re perfect learning vehicles. Me? I’m easily distracted and inclined to multitask. When my team (the New York Giants) played in the 2012 Super Bowl, my attention was split between the larger screen (the game) and a smaller screen (the Twitter feed on my laptop).

While the shared experience of Twitter was rewarding, I knew that my attention and appreciation (in the game itself) was partially compromised. That was something I’m passionate about (sports). Now, imagine an instructional program to teach you to use software. It’s interesting, but doesn’t involve the same level of passion. Imagine the potential for distraction.

Let’s consider five ways MOOC’s may not work well with my learning style.

1) Inclination to multitask.

We all multitask online. Don't we?

Photo source: User Victor1558 on flickr.

Admit it. Whether it’s a web meeting or a webinar, you’ve often checked email, posted to Facebook or updated a spreadsheet while someone else was speaking. You’ve also been asked a question (while multitasking) and were forced to confess that you weren’t paying attention.

In my classroom training program, we performed hands-on training exercises with the software. So that meant our laptops were out, we were online and our browsers were open. So yes, I multitasked a bit, even in the traditional classroom setting.

However, the traditional setting forced me to focus, because of the other people in the room. I knew that falling off track could cause me embarrassment, while a lack of eye contact with the instructor would be rude. When you’re online, you can multitask and lose focus without much penalty or repercussion.

2) Lack of discipline and focus.

Being on the web makes it easy to multitask. And did you notice that ever since browsers introduced tabbed browsing, that multitasking within a browsing session becomes heightened? Hey, that means you! Please return from the other tab!

Beyond online or application multitasking, I also have an inclination to lose focus. If a particular learning topic doesn’t naturally engage me, I’ll start to get drowsy. Or, I’ll think about what to have for lunch. A traditional classroom setting, on the other hand, provides convenient ways to pull you back into focus.

First off, your brain tells itself, “I’m sitting in a classroom, so I’m here to learn. Let’s stay focused.” Next, you have the other folks in the room (learners and instructors), who keep you from putting your head on the table or going in the corner to read a book.

3) Multitasking beyond the computer.

If I was working from home and attending the same classroom session online, I’d be inclined to hit “pause” (if I could) and get a few things done around the house. Maybe the laundry is done and the clothes need to be put in the dryer. OK, so I’ll take my laptop with me and go do that.

Similar to tweeting during the Super Bowl, my attention has just been compromised. In a traditional classroom, there are barriers that prevent you from doing this (not to mention the fact that your laundry machine is back at home).

4) Limited “connection” with the instructor.

Some online learning modules use a PowerPoint presentation or desktop sharing (no video). Others present the instructor via webcam. Neither compare with the instructor being 10 feet in front of you. There’s no way (yet) for online learners to make eye contact with their instructor. In a traditional classroom, however, being in the same room creates a connection that helps reinforce focus and discipline.

5) Less effective for hands-on learning modules.

Instructors provide assistance in a traditional classroom setting

While online platforms are effective at assigning hands-on exercises to learners, there’s something about the classroom setting that you miss online. Our program was over 50% hands-on modules (which was great). If you had an issue with your assignment, you could raise your hand and the instructor would visit.

Often, it was a simple setting (or step) that needed to be adjusted. You could watch over your neighbor’s shoulder to understand their issue and how it was resolved. I imagine that this same sort of “instructor-led management” can be accomplished online. But being in the same room created a shared learning experience that’s hard to replicate online.


In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote quite eloquently about MOOCs in a column titled “Come the Revolution.” And while I just got done writing about how MOOCs may not suit my learning style, count me a big fan of their potential.

After all, my training program was highly specialized. It was far different from the college lectures that MOOCs have focused on to date. In addition, it was a regional course. An overwhelming advantage of MOOCs is their ability to support an audience of geographically dispersed learners.

So, for Physics 101, I’ll see you online. For the marketing software boot camp, I’ll see you in the classroom.

How The Web Is Transforming Learning, Instruction and Education

August 19, 2011


None of us would be where we are today without learning, whether it was in the form of instruction, reading, observing or doing. Thanks to the web, conventional learning models are shifting. In fact, they’re being turned upside down.

We’re discovering that knowledge and instruction can be embedded in web apps, empowering students to learn and experience at their own pace. In addition, we know that everyone is passionate about something. And just as blogging transformed individuals into publishers, the web is allowing all of us to become professional instructors. If we want to be.

Your Classroom in Your Neighborhood

Companies in this space include Skillshare (“Learn anything from anyone”) and CommuniTeach (“Teach, learn, connect”). Their services are a mashup of Meetup, eBay and Eventbrite. They turn anyone into an instructor, who can create a class on any topic.  The role of their web sites, then, is to publish courses and instructor profiles and enable students to sign up for classes – and then attend them in person.

The beauty of this model is two-fold: it can make anyone an instructor and, it creates a nearly unlimited inventory of course content – well beyond what you could find in your local community college’s adult education catalog. As CommuniTeach writes on their home page, “Can you cook? Paint? Throw a frisbee? Write? Then people want to learn from you!”

Important: Rating & Reputation Systems

There will undoubtedly be a wide variation in instructor expertise and quality, which means a key component of making these systems effective and sustainable is a rating and reputation system for instructors. eBay wouldn’t be where it is today without its detailed seller ratings. Their reputation system allowed for enforcement by the community, which is a model that scales well.

Your Classroom, Online

The “neighborhood classroom” model involves “face to face” instruction in a physical classroom. Naturally, this model requires instruction to be regionalized (i.e. the current services are being rolled out in specific cities) and synchronized (at a specific day and time). Another emerging model is the online classroom, provided by companies like Udemy and Learnable.

The online model is interesting because it enables a global audience. And, it enables instructors to leverage a combination of self-paced (on-demand) and scheduled (live) instruction. While some of us are inclined to meet local learners (in person), others may be more comfortable teaching via webcam (online).

With Udemy, for example, instructors can make their course content available to learners on-demand and they can also create a Live Virtual Classroom that supports up to 10 video participants, thousands of viewers and interactive tools (e.g. whiteboard, chat and file sharing).

Video: Overview of Udemy

Your Children’s Classroom, Online

The Khan Academy is leading the way with a learning model that may just transform primary and secondary education. This quote on their FAQ page sums it up neatly: “With just a computer and a pen-tablet-mouse, one can educate the world!” The idea behind Khan Academy started when founder Salman Khan provided math instruction to his cousins. He placed his modules on YouTube and discovered that his cousins “preferred me on YouTube than in person.”

The feedback from his cousins provided an interesting insight into the power of self-paced learning – the students could fast-forward and rewind their cousin, learning at their own pace. They could complete exercises until they became proficient, without someone at their side asking, “do you understand it now?”

Teachers who have adopted the Khan Academy model in their classrooms have inverted the model: instruction can now be done at home (via the web and YouTube), while the homework (hands-on exercises) takes place in the classroom, with more time for the teacher to provide quality instruction (one-on-one care, if needed).

With its videos, exercises, knowledge map, instructor dashboards and game mechanics, Khan Academy has built a model that led Bill Gates to say, “it’s amazing, I think you just got a glimpse at the future of education.”

Video: Salman Khan at TED 2011

Note: The quote from Bill Gates occurs at the conclusion of this video.


Blogging enabled any individual to become a publisher. While some individuals blog as a labor of love, others have left their jobs, leveraging blogging as their primary source of income. Teaching is the new blogging. While I don’t expect blogging to go away any time soon, I do believe that a revolution is underway in learning and instruction.

Just as TechCrunch and Huffington Post grew from individual blogs into publishing empires, new instructional brands will emerge, empowered by individuals. The TechCrunch of tomorrow may still have a blog, but they’ll also have a physical and digital classroom to go along with it.

Related Links

  1. Blog Posting: A Look at The Future of Online Instruction


Did you enjoy this blog posting? If so, you can subscribe to the feed here: https://allvirtual.wordpress.com/feed/

A Look at The Future of Online Instruction

July 9, 2011

Photo credit: abbynormy on flickr.

Note: This is a collaborative blog posting made possible by PBworks. The concept behind this posting began with an innocent tweet from a few weeks back, in which I noted that my daughter asked me for knitting instruction.


Want to learn how to knit, but don’t have an instructor available? The first place you’d probably turn is your preferred search engine. And after a search or two, you’d likely come across KnittingHelp.com.

On this site, you can find written content, a forum and a collection of excellent how-to videos. And while the content and videos are quite good, what if you wanted a little more hand-holding?

For instance, elementary or middle school students looking to knit for the first time may not know where to start. They’d prefer an after-school class or private instruction to get them started. Let’s consider a few web-based solutions that could address these aspiring knitters.

Real-Time Video Instruction

Instead of “on-demand videos” (the KnittingHelp.com model), a student could connect with an instructor over a real-time video conference, using systems such as Skype or Facetime.

A flexible webcam would work best, one that can seamlessly alternate between two angles: (a) a view of the participant’s face and (b) a view of the knitting needles. This way, the session can begin with instructor and student seeing each other face to face, which is important to establishing a comfort level with one another.

Then, with both webcams focused on their respective knitting needles, the instructor could perform a few steps, while watching the student follow along. Real-time video (and audio) allows the instructor to provide constant and immediate feedback, which can facilitate more productive learning.

Real-Time Immersive Knitting

Next, imagine a 3D immersive environment, in which the instructor’s avatar meets the student’s avatar. Using mouse or keyboard controls to manipulate the knitting needles and yarn, the instructor and student can take turns with “immersive knitting.”

Much like an online meeting in which the presenter “passes the ball,” the instructor can “pass the needle” to the student to take control and practice knitting. While the immersiveness can be useful to visualize the proper knitting procedure, it’s not as effective as handling the needles and yarn with one’s own hands.

(A comment from Jim Reilly [Twitter])

“I see this as having little value – why use a new language (using computer keys) to knit, so that you then have to translate back to the original language (knitting needles) when you actually want to learn the skill and create something real?

I would also suggest including an example of how this technology could be employed so the motions detected through the motion sensors could be translated, through a modified knitting machine (substitute potter’s wheel for another of your examples) to deliver a product, almost in real-time, on the other side of the world.

The possibilities for physically disabled people to use the immersive environment and associated tools to create art and functional items is also worthy of note.”

Real-Time Immersive Knitting with Motion Detection

This scenario can be thought of as “3D immersive environment meets Microsoft Kinect.” Imagine the same 3D immersive environment, but using a motion-sensing device such as Microsoft’s Kinect.

Now, you can handle virtual knitting needles and watch the resulting scarf and sweater on the screen.  A Kinect device on the instructor’s workstation allows her to “take control” of the knitting. Together, instructor and student can knit collaboratively – imagine the interesting sweaters and garments they could create and then sell in Second Life or IMVU!

Alternatively, imagine a “real” (physical) ball of yarn, with “real” (physical) needles, working in conjunction with a motion detection system. As the student knits, the instructor sees a digital representation of the yarn/needles and can provide instruction based on the student’s knitting motions.

But Can Knitting Students “Really” Learn this Way?

(The following segment was contributed by Heidi Thorne [website] [Twitter])

When I was about 9, I learned to knit from my dad (yes, my dad!). That was in the physical “real” space. When I didn’t know how to do something, I could ask OR I referred to books. My how things have changed! It would have been so helpful to have a KnittingHelp.com resource around.

Interestingly, I didn’t learn to do the stitches (English) exactly as shown in the video. It looks somewhat awkward. But I think it points to an important aspect of online instruction, whether it be online video, real-time immersive, or with motion detection: It standardizes the way things are done, detail by detail.

Old-time (like 40-50 years ago) books would show here’s what the work looks like at step 1, then what it should look like at step 2, and the part between step 1 and 2 was somewhat of a mystery. It’s really difficult to turn mystery into mastery! So in that sense, yes, I think these new virtual learning models have incredible potential.

As noted earlier, knitting, like many other tactile arts, is difficult to translate into mouse and keyboard controls. So the real-time immersive knitting, without motion detection, has limited utility in this case. A 3D immersive environment which uses Microsoft Kinect type technology presents possibilities.

But, again, learning to deal with the tactile sensation of fibers, which can be uniquely uneven by default or design, is missing. It’s similar to driver’s ed simulators. Yes, you can drive along perfectly and the virtual traffic behaves. In the real world, well, traffic is less polite.

In sum, I believe that these technologies are excellent for early learning experiences since they take away some of the bumps and bruises that go with it, creating confidence through success on a small scale and at a faster pace.

“Hands-On” Practice

(The following segment was contributed by Jenise Fryatt [website] [Twitter])

I believe there is great value in methods of teaching that actually give you practice while using your hands. I believe there is research that shows that using your hands actually helps the brain to think better. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/hand.htm

I also believe that when the mind experiences the sensation of doing something, whether it be flying a plane in a simulation or laughing at failure in an improv game, the same neural pathways are created as are created in real life. Thus games and simulations can be amazingly effective teaching tools. I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore all they may be capable of accomplishing.


In addition to knitting instruction, the technology models we’ve outlined (above) could also apply to guitar instruction, pottery, painting and more. With technologies such as video, 3D immersion and motion detection, the possibilities are seemingly endless.


Did you enjoy this blog posting? Subscribe to the feed here: https://allvirtual.wordpress.com/feed/

%d bloggers like this: