Why online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy

One of the most commonly touted features of a new, digitally-enhanced pedagogy, championed by many plugged-in education theorists, is that education in the digital age can and should be transformed into online conversation. This seems possible and relevant because of online tools like wikis and blogs.  There has been a whole cottage industry of papers and blogs touting such notions.  Frankly, I’m not interested in grappling with a lot of this stuff.  Actually, I wish I had time, because it’s kind of fun to expose nonsense to the harsh light of reason.  But for now, let’s just say that I’ve read and skimmed a fair bit of it, and I find it decidedly half-baked, like a lot of the older educational theories that hoped for various educational “reforms.”  Some reference points would include fuzzy buzzwords like connectivism, constructivism, conversation, the social view of learning, participatory learning, and many more.

I am interested in briefly discussing a very basic question that, I imagine, underlies a lot of this discussion: can online conversation serve as the focus of a new pedagogy?  I’ve already written a bit about this in “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age,” but I wanted to return to the topic briefly.

A lot of educators are–not surprisingly–very much struck by the fact that we can learn a lot from each other online.  This is something I’ve been aware of since the mid-90s, when I ran some mailing lists and indeed did learn a lot from my fellow early adopters.  I continue to learn a lot from people online.  Quora is a great way to learn (albeit it’s mostly light intellectual entertainment); so are many blogs and forums.  And of course, wikis can be a useful source of learning both for writers and readers.  These all involve an element of online community, so it of course makes sense that educators might wonder how these new tools could be used as educational tools.  I’ve developed a few myself and actively participate in other online communities.

But when we, adults, use these tools and participate in these forums, we are building upon our school (and sometimes college) education.  We have learned to write.  We have (hopefully) read reasonably widely, and studied many subjects, giving us the background we absolutely require to understand and build upon common cultural references in our online lives.  But these are not attainments that school children share.  (My focus here will be K-12 education, not college-level education.)  You are making a very dubious assumption if you want to conclude that children can learn the basics of various subjects by online participation modeled after the way adults use online tools.  Namely, you are assuming that children can efficiently learn the basics of science, history, geography, and other academic subjects through online tools and communities that are built by and for educated people.

Of course they can’t, and the reason is plain: they usually have to be told new information in order to learn it, and taught and corrected to learn new skills.  These are not “participatory” features.  They require that a teacher or expert be set up to help, in a way that does not correspond to the more egalitarian modes of interaction online.  Moreover, except in some fields that are highly interpretive such as literature or philosophy, the relevant information cannot be arrived at via reflection on what they know–because most children are quite ignorant and much in need of education.  To be able to reflect, they need input.  They need content.  They need food for thought.  They need training and modeling.  They need correction.  We adults don’t experience these needs (at least, not so much) when we are surfing away.  We’re mostly done learning the concepts, vocabulary, and facts that we need to make sense of conversation in the forums that interest us.

So the reason online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy is that online conversation, as used by adults for learning, requires prior education.

I have nothing whatsoever against K-12 classes putting their essays or journals on blogs, or co-writing things using wikis, or in other ways using online tools to practice research, writing, and computer skills.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that when children do these things, they are doing what we adults do, or that they’re learning in the ways we do when we use blogs, wikis, etc.  They aren’t.  They’re using these as alternative media for getting basic knowledge and practicing skills.  We adults mainly use these media to expand our knowledge of current events and our special interests.  The way we use them is radically different from proper pedagogical uses precisely because our uses require a general education.

Are you skeptical?  Well, I expect that if you’re reading this sentence right now, you’re pretty well educated.  So consider, please.  What would it be like to read a science blog, or Quora answer on a scientific question, without having studied high school mathematics and science?  Pretty confusing.  What would it be like to read any of the bettter blogs out there–the ones in your own blogrolls or feeds–if you had not read a lot of literature and in other ways learned a lot of college-level vocabulary?  Difficult and boring.  What would it be like if you had to read the news, or political blogs or Wikipedia’s current affairs articles, having only minimal knowledge of geography and civics?  Puzzling at best.  Could you really hold your own in a blog discussion about politics if you had an elementary student’s grasp of history and politics?  Would you find it easy to write a forum post coherently, clearly, and with good mechanics and spelling, even just to ask a question, if you had not practiced and studied academic writing and grammar as much as you did?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You can’t do these various things that make you an effective, articulate, plugged-in netizen without already having a reasonably good liberal arts education.

I imagine it’s sort of possible, but conversation online among your fellow students would be an incredibly inefficient way for you to learn these things in the first place.  Why spend your time trying to glean facts from the bizarre misunderstandings of your fellow 10-year-olds when you can get an entertaining, authoritative presentation of the information in a book or video?  And I’ll tell you one thing–someone in your online study community, the teacher or the class nerd, will have to have read such “authoritative” media, and reveal the secrets to everyone, or you’ll be “learning” in a very empty echo chamber.

At this point, someone is bound to point out that they don’t really oppose “mere facts” (which can just be looked up), declarative knowledge, or “elitist” academics, or books, or content, or all the other boo-hiss villains of this mindset.  They just want there to be less emphasis on content (memorization is so 20th century!), and more on conversation and hands-on projects.  Why is that so hard to understand?  But this is where they inevitably get vague.  If books and academic knowledge are part of the curriculum after all, then in what way is online conversation the “focus” of the curriculum?  How are academics, really, supposed to figure in education–in practice?

My guess is that when it comes down to implementation, the sadly misled teacher-in-the-trenches will sacrifice a few more of the preciously scarce books in the curriculum and use the time for still more stupid projects and silly groupwork assignments, now moved online using “cutting edge” tools because that’s what all the clever people say where “the future” lies.  As a result, the students will learn little more about computers and online communities than they would learn through their own use of things like Facebook, and they’ll get something that barely resembles a “reasonably good liberal arts education.”

EDIT: I greatly enjoyed this literature review/analysis article:

Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist 41 (2), 75-86: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

16 Responses to "Why online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy"
  1. Reply Greg Linstesr December 22, 2011 12:10 pm

    Nice piece, Larry! It does indeed seem absurd to think that an online education is a perfect substitute for the education that one receives in a classroom environment. Can it be a complement? Absolutely, but I too am growing weary of those who see it as more of a substitute than a complement.

    It’s also worth noting that some subjects are better suited for online learning and some are not (the humanities obviously come to mind).

    Creating well-rounded and educated citizens requires a type of learning that simply cannot be had exclusively online.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 22, 2011 14:35 pm

      “Creating well-rounded and educated citizens requires a type of learning that simply cannot be had exclusively online.”

      Right–at least, not with blogs, forums, etc., alone.

      Really, my point doesn’t attack online education per se, because I can imagine someone reading e-book versions of the classics, doing all his writing “in the cloud,” etc., and emerging with a good liberal education. But that’s simply using digital tools to replicate what used to be done without them.

      Thanks, Greg!

      • Reply Greg Linster December 22, 2011 16:52 pm

        Great point! However, I still think that face-to-face interaction should have a role in the education process as well, at least to some degree.

        • Reply Larry Sanger December 22, 2011 17:00 pm

          You could be right. Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet argues for your position very interestingly.

  2. Reply Hendrik Jeremy Mentz December 23, 2011 01:18 am

    Thank you for this post. You are right of course, although vested interests will protest loudly (I anticipate however you’ll be ignored in the hope that you’ll go away.)

    Decades ago I realised that what I considered teaching was in fact enrichment for kids who – because they came from a privileged background – already had a solid foundation from home. I suspect that pundits for e-learning are largely catering for a similar cross-section of children and not the billions who need school to provide what they’re not getting at home.

    This insight came as a shock to me many years ago after being appointed as head of department in a school where I was suddenly confronted by kids from a less advantaged background and for whom what I had hitherto considered as ‘teaching’ was inappropriate. Scarier was that my teacher training hadn’t prepared me for these boys. In other words I didn’t know how to teach my subject.

    This is a huge problem that we are facing in South Africa where the majority of children comes from an impoverished background. This and your earlier post ‘An example of educational anti-intellectualism’ helped me understand why the incoming head of education in the Western Cape was correct to put (perhaps) less emphasis on e-learning and, instead, to focus relentlessly on basic literacy and numeracy supported by actual texts in the classroom.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 24, 2011 11:48 am

      Very thought-provoking response. Thanks!

    • Reply Allan Quartly December 25, 2011 00:59 am

      Yes Hendrik, the secret code of education. Basil Bernstein put forward this notion back in the 70s. Which is partly why I think that teaching students how to learn is more important for some kids than the facts themselves. This is not to say that kids shouldn’t be taught the things Larry proposes here but if there is no modelling of learning at home or school then kids from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out. Most of my learning happened after I left school which I believe is what makes me a more effective teacher in disadvantaged schools than most teachers. And I can tell you I spend a lot of time teaching kids the secrets of education.

  3. Reply Sui Fai John Mak December 24, 2011 08:42 am

    Hi Larry,
    Here is my response to your post http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/change11-can-online-conversation-be-the-focus-of-a-pedagogy/
    Thanks very much for your interesting post.

  4. Reply Ryan Tracey December 25, 2011 18:56 pm

    Hi Larry.

    I have taken a leaf out of John’s book and posted my response on my blog:

    “Clash of the titans” http://ryan2point0.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/clash-of-the-titans/


    • Reply sjf December 28, 2011 14:20 pm

      Titans? More like the Larry the Lion and the Mouse that squeaked.

  5. Reply Sui Fai John Mak December 29, 2011 08:15 am

    Hi Larry,
    Here is my further response http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/change11-a-story-for-you-part-ii/

  6. Reply Mark McGuire December 30, 2011 02:49 am

    You make some good points here, Larry.

    I wasn’t aware that there was a concerted effort to centre formal educational experiences around conversations in the absence of substantial, well researched, peer reviewed resources. It would be a bit like a book club without a book, or a gathering of friends exchanging views and opinions over dinner, or over a few beers at the pub. Are you responding to particular individuals, activities, or articles in this post? If so, it would be useful if you named them, so we all knew what ideas and proposals you are addressing.

    I have some (limited) experience as a participant in open online courses, but none have relied exclusively on discussions. In all cases, the facilitators and guest presenters have provided resources in advance of the synchronous sessions, so the conversations that followed were focussed and informed. A conversational, process-based model of education can be effective, I believe, as long as the appropriate tools, resources, and facilitators are also in place. The degree of guidance, and the nature and number of the resources that are required, would depend on the situation and on the prior knowledge and experience of the learner.


    Mark McGuire
    Twitter: mark_mcguire

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 30, 2011 10:27 am

      Mark, thanks for the response. Two examples I had in mind while writing this post were this and this. I don’t claim that there is a “concerted effort” (as if there were a conspiracy?), only a fashionable trend. I also agree that not everyone who talks much about using social media in education want to make it the core of the curriculum, of course. Perhaps there are very few commentators who would bear the full brunt of my critique.

      My comments really had to do primary and secondary education.

  7. Reply Peter Wallis January 4, 2012 23:18 pm

    Hi Mr. Sanger,

    I know I’m rather late to the conversation, but I would love to read any response you might have to my thoughts on yours and Mr. Wheeler’s blog-debate.


    Thank you,
    Peter Wallis

    • Reply Larry Sanger January 5, 2012 00:18 am

      You can’t have it both ways. There is a significant disagreement in method and outcome at issue here. I believe that education is already dumbed down. We do not teach enough facts, indeed, but also not enough “critical thinking skills” in the most genuine sense, of getting into and being able to take apart a difficult text. That’s because the many wrong-headed education theorists have, over the course of generations of progressivism, managed to persuade teachers (and probably many parents and students) that reading the classics and really coming to terms with difficult texts–as well as other elements of a liberal education–are unnecessary in an interconnected and fast-changing world. On your view, should we be learning more classic texts, more of the liberal arts subjects, etc., or should we be more focused on “projects” that teach “how to” and mix together fields and are supposed to challenge students to come up with their own answers? I say we do not nearly enough of the former, and way too much of the latter. Wheeler says the opposite. It’s a zero-sum game; the question is about how we spend the limited time we have with students before their formal K-12 education ends. What do you say?

  8. Reply carl gombrich January 30, 2012 18:30 pm

    I guess it depends what you mean by ‘focus’. I am certainly learning a lot from the conversations on your website – as would many smart kids from about the age of nine. And recently I learned a massive amount about monetary reform from the extensive comments at http://www.positivemoney.org.uk. I have no background in economics or banking and find the concept of money more difficult than many children, but am constantly learning new things from the chat at this particular website. You could, indeed, say that I use this as the focus of my learning about these things which I then supplement with wiki articles, academic papers etc.

    If anyone wanted to check out some serious, demanding and technical critical thinking (and, indeed, some interesting, tough facts) they could do a lot worse than read comment streams at a site like this. And this is all stuff that an intelligent kid could do to learn as well. Indeed, many of the kids applying to my university are exactly learning in this way already. So I’m not sure why we should be concerned about learners getting a lot of stuff from online conversation. Of course we all need to learn to read and write and do sums (!) but once you have these skills you can make great headway on your own in online conversations if you are bright and motivated.

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