Of the classroom, but not in it
Recently I delivered an address to a group of students. My talk took 25 minutes, and after that there were questions and answers. Nothing unusual, you might say. Except perhaps that I was sitting at my desk in my study at home, and the students were several hundred miles away in a university classroom. My image was transmitted to them via my webcam. It was, in a strange sort of way, highly unusual and highly normal. I had my cup of coffee by my side, and at one point when the students’ lecturer needed to cover some procedural aspects with them I was able to walk over to the window and look out at my garden. When I wanted to refer to a book I have on my shelves I was able to step over and get it.
Was it as good as being there, or even better? Or was it not the same thing at all? Well, all of those things. And I wonder what it would have been like if one of the students had also not been present and had been beamed in via Skype or the like. Because, as I have just read, that may also now be happening with increasing frequency. According to an article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 per cent of American professors have experimented with this and have, on occasion, allowed students to participate in a class via a computer connection.
It may be tempting to think that this sort of thing is where we are headed, given the increasing sophistication of the technology. Indeed, classes where nobody (lecturer or students) is in the same location are also now available in many distance learning programmes, but in a way that is different because that’s what the product is. But how far should virtual attendance be allowed in programmes that are supposed to be classroom based in real time? Or is the concept of such physical presence now itself out-dated?
These are hard questions to answer. For all sorts of reasons we must expect and indeed prepare for learning and teaching that is not tied to location. But on the other hand, there are still reasons for believing that a classroom experience in which everyone is present has a special pedagogical value. Teaching technology will continue to advance, and we must continue to consider how far it should go.