Friday, August 26, 2005

Top Myths about Online Learning: Disembodiment

A few months ago, I was reading the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. It's a great book, and has nothing to do with educational technology, but the word "disembodied" appeared in it a lot. The use of that word was quite literal in this book, but it kept reminding me of the less literal use of the word as it's often bandied about in describing the experiences of online learners.

I did a quick Google search for
+"disembodied" +"online learning" which at the time turned up 597 hits. Today it's turning up 677. Are there more skeptics out there? Or more people fighting the skeptics? Only digging through the search results will tell. It's worth looking at a few of the hits. One is a book review of book called On the Internet, which takes a negative stance on the Internet in general and on online learning in particular, which at one point draws on the same philosopher as the author does to refute the idea that engaging in the Internet is an act of disembodiment:
For Merleau-Ponty, there can be no experience outside the body and he would conclude that any warning about the dangers of disembodied experiences are pointless because such a thing is not possible.
The reviewer's overall point is that any new technology goes through this long period of misconception and myth. Can we please move beyond this period soon for online learning? It makes my job difficult when I discover that many of my colleagues have a mental model of online learning as I talk to them about how we might advance our goals related to it. As I'm talking with them about which courses and programs we might offer online, I often forget that in their mind this is a second-rate learning approach, and one that will end forever the close, personal relationships that students and faculty will have.

When I finally snap out of it and remember what they're thinking, I do my little song and dance reminding them that in online courses most students and instructors alike report that they're able to develop closer and mor meaningful relationships with more of their classmates/students. I try to explain that the asynchronous nature of onling learning does worlds to enhance interpersonal contact, plus reflection and critical thinking. I expound on the wonder of the tools in helping to better facilitate collaborative learning. And still, I know they're thinking that online learning is about disembodiment.

I think the best thing that can happen for these folks is that they take, and then teach, an online course themselves. But not all of them will, so I'll keep doing my song and dance.

Actually, more an more I can already begin to see a shift in thinking, and the myth of embodiment seems less present among my colleagues. However, I'm still mindful when I'm talking to someone who's never experienced online learning to deliver the "elevator pitch" part first--trying to make sure we have a shared picture of what I mean by online learning. Every time I do this, I confirm that the myth was alive and well because as I describe my view/experience of online learning I get a lot of "really?" and "oh, I didn't realize that."

So practice your anti-disembodiment elevator pitch. Let's see if we can kill off this myth in short order.


At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Hi Jim,
It was quite interesting read. I agree that there is a great myth about online learning. We are trying to fight the battle through our "Remote learning with live trainer" website. I do not want to do self-promotion, but we've been doing this for sometime, and our people are very satisfied. I think if it is not asynchronous, but synchronous, when you are interacting with instructor/students in real time, it works!!

check out



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