Preparing Students for Online Instruction Styles

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Education: Two Schools of Thought

For those of you who attended a high school that implemented collaborative learning (CL), you won’t experience quite the jolt with online instruction that other students enrolled in the virtual classroom may experience. They may come with a different frame of reference: having learned under the authoritarian-style of teaching. Understanding the difference between the authoritarian style of teaching and the facilitated learning style is the first step in preparing students for online instruction.

Prior to the 1980’s, social constructs took a back seat in most U.S. college classrooms. Social interaction took place mainly in team sports, in-between classes, or on student off-time. In online learning, however, social constructs have bumped up into the passenger seat adjacent to subject material. Why the greater emphasis? Some believe modern technology via computers and the World Wide Web has expedited this paradigm shift. Others believe educators have forced an agenda contrary to what many parents and taxpayers want; that they look at education from a globalist perspective knowing that students from all over the world can now merge in one virtual classroom. But what about major belief differences? Does majority rule within the group?

Fifty years ago, college teachers were the experts lecturing in front of the class to a room filled with students who faced them. Teachers looked upon students as learners in need of their knowledge, while students picked their teachers’ brains, so to speak, in hopes of becoming as knowledgeable as they. Now, there is a paradigm shift as to the nature of teaching - not only in online learning but in traditional learning centers as well. Other educational theorists, such as Piaget and John Dewey, have made strides into the public domain advancing what they believe is the purpose of teaching. For them, learning takes place not around the subject matter deposited from teacher to student, but around a problem or idea with “an expectation about a final result or objective.” They insist that the “teacher” give guidance or direction, not instruction. They do not want students to be given the “right answer,” but provided the “right questions” to direct the students toward a given outcome.1

Don’t give the right answer; just ask the right questions? Didn’t Socrates do this? It also sounds a little like the patient with a problem coming to the psychiatrist and lying on his couch. The psychiatrist doesn’t tell the patient what’s wrong with him. His role is that of a facilitator. He asks his patient pertinent questions to get him to think, rethink, evaluate, reevaluate, etc. what is troubling him. He wants the patient, under his direction, to solve his own problem. Now a similar theory is finding its way into the classroom. The teacher guides you along your path of learning in anticipation of you arriving at a foregone conclusion.

Some who favor the student-centered constructionist facilitator over the teacher-centered authoritarian believe the traditional type teacher/student relationship is a one-way street; that only the teacher has knowledge to impart to the student, not the other way around. Such thinking, however, is short-sited. The best teachers have always known that they, too, learn from their students due to their life experiences. Their emphasis is on individual, not group learning. (See Group Grades in an Online Course.) Those who favor facilitation believe the students themselves have experiential knowledge to impart among a diverse group and that learning takes place not only from facilitator to students, but from students to facilitator and between student and student. The emphasis, for them, is on group learning. The group may even set some of the rules and responsibilities within the group. (This setup may have gotten its start with the encounter groups that started on U. S. college campuses in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were known for their consciousness-raising experiences that took place outside of the classroom on weekend retreats.)

Why Is It Important to Know Both Schools of Thought?

Preparing students for online instruction ahead of time is a necessary step in education. It’s good to be aware of these two schools of thought when choosing the online course best for you. Look for the unwritten ratio mix of time committed to authoritarian style lectures and exams versus time taken up in student-centered group activities and discussions surrounding the lectures. Courses are rarely equally balanced between these two poles. Which type do you prefer?


1Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Educational Psychology Interactive.