Schools Training

Online education and the dangers of multitasking

5 FEB 2014

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One potentially positive result of the current fascination with online education is that universities and colleges may be forced to define and defend quality education. This analysis of what we value should help us present to the public the importance of higher education in a high-tech world.

However, the worst thing to do is to equate university education with its worst forms of instruction, which will in turn open the door for distance learning. Perhaps the most destructive aspect of higher education is the use of large lecture classes.

Not only does this type of learning environment tend to focus on students memorising information for multiple-choice tests, but it also undermines any real distinction between in-person and online education.

As one educational committee at the University of California in Los Angeles argued, we should just move most of our introductory courses online because they are already highly impersonal and ineffective. In opposition to this argument, we need to define and defend high-quality in-person classes.

Although some would argue that we should prepare students for the new high-tech world of self-instruction, we still need to teach students how to focus, concentrate and sustain attention.

In large classes, where the teacher often does not even know if the students are in attendance, it is hard to get students to stay on task, and many times, these potential learners are simply surfing the web or text messaging.

In a small class, it is much harder for students to be invisible and to multitask, and while some may say that it is not the role of university educators to socialise these young adults, it is clear that the current generation of students does need some type of guidance in how they use technology and participate in their own education.

When people multitask, it often takes them twice as long to complete a task, and they do it half as well. For instance, my students tell me that when they try to write a paper they are constantly text messaging and surfing the web: the result is that they spend hours writing their essays, and their writing is often disjointed and lacking in coherence.

Since they are not focused on a single task, they do not notice that the ideas and sentences in their essays do not flow or cohere. Literally and figuratively, these multitasking students are only partially present when they are writing and thinking.


This lack of presence also shows up in the classroom. Students often act as if they are invisible in small classes because in their large lecture classes they are in many ways not present. Many students seem to lack any awareness of how they appear to others, and they are so used to sleeping in their large classes that they do not think about how their present absence appears to other students in a smaller class.

Of course, it is much more difficult for students to be either literally or figuratively absent in a small class, but some students have been socialised by their large lecture classes to ignore the different expectations of more intimate learning environments. As many higher education teachers have experienced, some students are able to participate in online discussion forums, but have a hard time speaking in their small seminars.

Once again, students may find it difficult being present in front of others and taking the risk of presenting their own ideas in the presence of others. Some distance educators argue that we can resolve this problem by just moving classes online, but do we really want to train a generation of students who do not know how to communicate to other people in a natural setting?


Read full article: University World News