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.

Trends In The Virtual Worlds Industry

September 28, 2010

How do you keep up with industry trends?  You hear from the people setting the trends.  On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.  The event featured a session titled “Trends in the Virtual Worlds Industry: An Update on What’s New and What’s Coming.”

The panel:

  1. Facilitator Jeff Pope, Founding Partner, Spark Sky Ventures
  2. David Helgason, CEO and Co-Founder, Unity
  3. Chris Platz, Creative Director and Art Lead, Stanford Sirikata Labs
  4. Eilif Trondsen, Research and Program Director of the Virtual Worlds @ Work Consortium at Strategic Business Insights, SRI International
  5. Mark Wallace, Conversation Manager, Linden Lab

Related News: From Virtual Worlds News, “Unity Launches Unity 3, Wins Innovation Award


The panel agreed that the term “virtual worlds” may no longer be applicable.  Eilif Trondsen noted that many technologies (e.g. Teleplace, Protosphere), provide virtual spaces (for corporations), rather than an entire virtual world.  Interestingly, at a Stanford Media X event, IMVU noted that they’re “NOT a virtual world“, either.  Chris Platz noted that he refers to the technology as a “real-time 3D collaborative spaces.”

Adapting to a changing user community

Platz noted that many virtual worlds technologies were designed for an older audience – one that will soon give way to a younger generation (e.g. Gen Y).  The technologies will need to adapt to a user base who grew up in a “virtual world” – they will have a different set of expectations.  An audience member noted that for some kids, their first experience online is in Club Penguin (or a similar “world”) – before they experience the broader web.

Platz encouraged virtual worlds to tear down the “walled garden” (e.g. closed system) in favor of an open system that integrates with Facebook, Twitter and other systems.  Platz developed and experimented with a Flash-based MMORG (massively multi-player online role-playing game) that ran as a Facebook app.  He predicted that some time soon, someone would develop a fully functional 3D virtual world embedded in Facebook – one that users interact with while on Facebook.com.

Avatar or no avatar?

The panel had an interesting debate on the use of avatars.  The debate was spurred from a point made about someone’s notion of an “ideal corporate learning environment”, which listed the following attributes:

  1. Ability to give presentations
  2. Virtual whiteboard
  3. Document collaboration
  4. Desktop sharing
  5. Use of avatars is secondary

What the debate really boiled down to is not “avatar or no avatar”, but “immersion or no immersion?”  Mark Wallace from Linden Lab took the “avatar stance”, noting the deep association between a user and her avatar – and the resulting impact of that connection.  Wallace noted that Second Life residents whose avatars participate in virtual weight loss programs actually lose weight in real life.

Audience member Laura Kusumoto noted that Wallace’s example referred to “Club One Island” on Second Life – I wrote about Club One in a posting about a Stanford Media X event in which they presented.

For me, it’s useful in a group learning environment to receive signals about the other members of the group (e.g. are they paying attention, are they engaged, are they asking questions, etc.).

There are non-immersiveness tools that can be leveraged (e.g. webcams, text chat, message boards, etc.).  However, I do see the value of immersiveness for learning – I’d compare it to an in-person team meeting vs. an audio-only conference call.

Augmented social graph reality

David Helgason made an interesting prediction with regard to augmented reality.  Helgason believes that the future of augmented reality includes your social graph overlaid onto your AR experience.  In the near future, your smartphone may be able to perform facial recognition on a person – and overlay your social graph connections to that person (on your smartphone’s display).

Perhaps the more immediate opportunity is already happening – via location based services as opposed to augmented reality.  For example, I arrive at a restaurant and find reviews from people in my social graph.  Reading my friends’ reviews lets me know whether I should go in to grab a table.

Second Life Enterprise

Linden Lab’s Mark Wallace was asked to comment on future plans for Second Life Enterprise.  Wallace noted that Linden Lab is taking a holistic approach to the entire platform – looking to make improvements to the user experience that apply to all users.  Wallace would not comment specifically on Enterprise, noting that the improvements underway would benefit everyone.


This isn’t your father’s virtual world any more.  From hearing this panel, I’d say that virtual worlds technologies (or, real-time 3D collaborative spaces) will continue to morph and blend immersive experiences with the social graph, social gaming and augmented reality.  As facilitator Jeff Pope noted, it will be interesting to gather again in 12 months to re-assess where the trends have taken us.

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