You Can’t Stuff A Classroom Down A CAT5 Cable

old-classroomLast week I was having a nice conversation with a new online friend about helping her move her “in-person” teaching into the land of the Interwebs.  (This is a conversation that I’ve now had 21,586 times — since I do this sort of thing for a living — so I’m getting better and better at it.)  As usual, she was bemoaning the fact that there were parts of the in-person teaching experience that you “just couldn’t translate” into the online world.

With great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, I told her that those of us with a great deal of experience in developing online learning had a technical term for that concern.  We called it “dumb”. As you might expect, a short silence followed.

(I need to interject here that my new friend understands that I’m an obnoxious, opinionated old bear and doesn’t object to that at all.  Had I been dealing with someone who was more sensitive I might have described this as a “possible disconnect in her evaluation of the potential learning modality available within the online form factor as it relates to the more traditional instructor-led design model” or something like that.)

When she asked me to give her more detail, I said that thinking of the digital world as a place to just move her in-person class model didn’t make sense, because she already had a great place to teach in person.  It was called real life. What she needed to do was learn about the wonderful things that you can do in the online world that you can’t do in person, the experiences that learners can have in the online world that can’t be replicated in the meat world, and the ways that a digital teacher can create amazing experiences that would never be possible if they were in a traditional classroom.

How About An Example, Then?

Thank you for asking. One of my favorites involves what I call the “Poindexters” that all of us have in our real-world classrooms.  They’re the ones who sit in the front, have a pocket protector and a fresh notebook, and wave their hands high in the air every time we ask a question.  They want to be called on, they crave attention, and hope that the whole class hears them answer every question. (I have a great sympathy for them, because I is one.)

In the back of the room, we have the Wallflowers.  Heads down, never engaging, terrified that you’ll call on them and make them look stupid if they answer wrong.  Many of these people have the correct answer — and often some of the most interesting ideas — but you never get to hear them.  Because over the years in education we’ve taught them that the focus is on getting the right answer at all costs. So they just won’t participate.

In the online world, I can ask every student to log in as their favorite candy bar for the day.  (This means nobody in class knows who they are.)  Then, when I ask a question, the Poindexters and the Wallflowers are on a level playing field.  You should see the sparks fly!  You should see the creativity, the passion, and the engagement!

There are many more examples.  Online offers learners more time to create their thoughts and craft them carefully.  Those learners who are glib and can speak quickly and easily (I’m also guilty of that) are no longer at an advantage.  Collaboration looks very different online.  Research looks very different online. And peer-to-peer learning works wonderfully online, meaning the poor teacher doesn’t have to be the source of every bit of information.

So Online Learning Is All You Need, Then?

Oh, Pish-Tosh!  It’s just one more tool in the bag.  Just because we got pens, we didn’t give up on pencils.  There are good parts and bad parts to any way of delivering knowledge to young skulls full of mush.  And so far, we’re only scratching the surface on how to do digital learning right.

Want to glimpse the future?  Take a look at Building Intelligent Interactive Tutors: Student-Centered Strategies For Revolutionizing e-Learning” by Beverly Park Woolf.  In a nutshell, it’s AI that watches how the student is doing and offers meaningful help just when it is needed.  (Think “Clippy” on steroids.)

We’ll always have classrooms, and I’ll always love to teach in them.



  1. Jane Bozarth says

    I have a new answer for trainers who tell me they don’t “believe” in the effectiveness of online instruction. I tell them *I* don’t believe in the effectiveness of face to face instruction. They don’t really know what to do with that…


  2. dickcarl says

    Yes, my experience is that the naysayers who keep telling me online doesn’t work are generally the ones who have no meaningful assessment strategy in place for their ILT.

    One of my favorite things about online is that many, many meaningful metrics are pretty much either built-in or easily added. Number of posts, time online, connections made, posts read, lines posted, links clicked. (I’m not saying these are the top of the assessment ladder, mind you — but they’re very easily collected in the digital world and nearly impossible to collect in the meat world.)

    Write a few scripts, add some plug-ins, and you can create scenarios and learning assessments that would take HOURS to deliver and measure in ILT. And you can have the graded peer-to-peer online and not take up any instructor time at all.


  3. David Glow says

    Brilliant post as always. Speaks to the issue with the appropriate levels of insight and humor to keep it very informative and “real” (Dick- your blog just might be the “Daily Show” of the elearning community). Thanks for this- exactly what’s needed.

    Jane- exactly! As a person who has been on both sides of the equation, I often note the exact same concern (or I get snarky: “Says who? It’s actually great because you don’t see the disinterest on their faces when you are teaching online”). Sometimes, I can be a bit of a Dick too. ;)

  4. Holly MacDonald says

    Thanks for your post. It was good to read today, as I’m going through a similar experience. I’ve been asked to take a 5 day training program and put it online. One person on the committee is not that comfortable with the concept of online learning and doesn’t really think that we can replicate the program, and I had to agree with her, that we can’t replicate it. It will be different. She was kind of shocked at that.

    Then I talked about the things that they could do online. Have a global class, allow time in between for reflection. Link to additional resources. Allow people to learn as it suits them. Provide one-on-one coaching. Use video for people to play as much as they want to deconstruct. Etc. Etc.

    There is room for all types of learning in this world, isn’t there?

    PS – I have to agree with David on the Daily Show comment!

  5. dickcarl says

    @david I’ve officially stolen “Techherding is the ‘Daily Show’ of the eLearning community” as my new tag line. I’ll work harder and harder until I can become the “Stephen Colbert” of online learning.

  6. dickcarl says

    @holly The three scariest words an Instructional Designer can hear are “Put It Online”. The assumption here is what big Universities were using back in the dawn of the Internet (circa 1994) when the figured all they had to do was video-tape one of their senior faculty, photo copy his handouts, and they’d never have to pay for an instructor ever again.

    As you may have noticed, that didn’t happen. Very few large Universities have successfully laid off their faculty. And most online education still involves some kind of live person. (There are exceptions, of course. Some of them courses I’ve designed.) But it’s not easy to take an instructor-led course and just shovel it online. (Who coined the term “shovelware”, anyway? I’d like to buy him/her a beer.)

    To be effective, you pretty much have to tear the ILT apart and then rebuild it, just like Colonel Steve Austin. (Points given for the students that can identify that reference without The Google.)

  7. Jerrid Kruse says

    so instead of helping the wallflowers or poindexters learn to interact in the real world we give them a scapegoat? this makes little sense. Now, had you said we can use the digital environment to scaffold these students toward appropriate and useful engagement in the real world, i’d be with you. but you clearly see the digital environment as a replacement. This is a real problem….if our dialogue doesn’t change we will lose education, and it won’t be to private companies, it will be to online programs.

  8. Eric Wilbanks says

    Excellent post, @Techherding. As a matter of fact, it was so good I had to ask myself if it was really written by the guy who spends his day tweeting people off and giving stupidity the bird (symbolically speaking, of course). Upon further research, I learned that you plagiarized this entire post from some guy named Dick Carlson. You should be ashamed.


  1. [...] Can we just convert our classroom courses into a self-paced online course? What I’d like to answer: well of course you can.  But, it’ll probably be awful.  Would YOU take the training?  Willingly?  I’ll help you repurpose the content, but in a way that suits an online environment.  This might include cutting a significant amount of stuff that is superfluous, and changing it up, just like Dick suggests.  [...]