Lawns and Lecture Halls


November 26, 2012 by John Douglas Belshaw

Surveys regularly tell us that students prefer the classroom to the computer, to have direct interaction with a professor rather than a pc.  There are so many ways to poke holes in those results that I’m almost embarrassed to do so.  Almost.

First, asking ‘students’ if they’d prefer to be in a ‘classroom’ on campus rather than taking anonline course at home is akin to asking anyone who holds an automobile license if they’d rather be in a car or on public transit.  It’s not that one is objectively better than the other, it’s that the group has already self-selected within an environment that promotes one vision over all others.

Even so, think of the many subtle ways in which campus-based post-secondary is promoted –movie sets with ivy-covered libraries, the promise of young adult sexual and substance adventure, varsity sports that might lead to a pro career – and then try to recall one instance where online learning is presented as anything other than … online learning.


UNBC in Prince George. Some BC campuses look like ski resorts.

To push the earlier metaphor: buses are transportation; a Ferrari, like it or not, is just so muchmore. Ask a cyclist or someone who has elected not to get a driver’s license what they think and you’ll get a different response to the car vs transit question. Ask non-students what they’d prefer – eight o’clock classes every Monday morning or online-anytime-anywhere – and, well, ditto.

Second, “direct interaction with faculty”? Really? Have you seen those 500-seat lecture halls? What sort of “direct interaction” do we think is occurring there? Juxtapose ‘classroom’ (which even I imagine as a smallish room containing no more than 30 people) with ‘lecture auditorium’ and let’s ask the question again.

Besides, and to be fair, professors who shoulder research obligations, governance responsibilities, a bit of voluntarism, and the need to find lunch or take a pee are hard-pressed to hold more than a few office hours each week. Some have a contractual obligation to do so; some do not. Certainly if they had “direct interaction” with most of their students, they would be completely overwhelmed. And, let’s be clear, even ‘teaching-focused’ colleges have 120-180 seat sections of Macro-Economics, Intro Marketing, and Psych 101.

All of which might work if this was 1912 and not 2012.  Next week: Go Varsity!


5 thoughts on “Lawns and Lecture Halls

  1. Jim Placzek says:

    As always, very thought-provoking.

  2. Anne Cumming says:

    I just registered for a free course through…a seven week Wesleyan University course that will never be available to me any other way. No credits, but who cares?

    • There are things we want to know, things we need to know, things we are expected to know, and things we are obliged to know. Y’know? And it strikes me that the pre-packaged B.A. or B.Sc. that was designed some decades ago may not cover most of those bases. I’ve taken a Udemy course, found it very well constructed, and will go back for more. Credits? Who cares? I need to know the things I want to know….

  3. The right online learning environment can make all the difference.

    I attempted a course through Athabasca once and found their model didn’t work for me at all. It was basically a classroom course without a classroom and an instructor. Sure, there’s the tutors available by phone and email if you have questions, but there’s nothing to help you feel engaged with the material. However a similar course through the Canadian Securities Institute delivered in by a slightly different model using a variety of media was fantastic.

    The CA School of Business has an interesting hybrid model using primarily online learning with one weekend per course of face to face learning and it seems to be very effective.

    • Thanks for this Allyson.

      With online courses, as with roses, hybridization comes in many varieties. One of the challenges facing educators and administrators right now is the speed of change — by which I don’t mean technology keeps transforming and new knowledge is hard to keep up with (though true on both counts). What I mean is that people who made the effort to familiarize themselves with distance education tech five or six years ago and, like you, rejected it because it was clunky and chunky and not a lot of fun, don’t know how the range of possibilities has opened up.

      I’m reminded of a colleague who used to complain about the library collection and access to electronic resources: he’d given it a real chance, had worked hard with the collections librarians and still it was a disaster. So much so that he stayed away from the place for five years, complaining all the while. Needless to say, the collection was utterly overhauled in the meantime and the professor’s complaints were only having two consequences: he became dyspeptic and he was negatively impacting his students’ ability to thrive.


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