“It’s early days for online education,” declared a recent article in the technology blog  Techcrunch, with its typical giddiness about the changes that technology is poised to bring to schooling. But the narrative that education and technology have only recently intersected ignores decades of products and practices. It ignores decades of experiences and expertise. And while some things ed-tech might seem quite shiny, it’s worth asking — with a nod to the past and a good deal of skepticism about the promises for the future — “what’s new?”

Learning from video certainly isn’t.

* * *

I completed my undergraduate degree almost 20 years ago, thanks to what we then called “distance education.” At the time, I lived in Casper, Wyoming; I’d just had a baby; and I wasn’t able to relocate to Laramie, where the state’s one university is located. I’d already completed two years of college back East before dropping out, but now had to piece together the rest of the credits necessary for a Bachelors Degree. I did so through a combination of classes held at a satellite campus, classes I joined via teleconferencing, traditional paper-and-pen correspondence courses, and yes, video.

I took “Introduction to Statistics” this way. I was shipped a textbook, a package of worksheets, and a box of 20 some-odd videotapes. Watch the lectures. Take the quizzes. Mail them to the professor, who’d grade them and send them back.

* * *

There’s lots of excitement about the video lectures produced by online learning sites like Khan Academy, Udacity, and Coursera.  Watch the lectures. Take the quizzes. The responses from the automated grading system are certainly a lot faster than the US Postal Service.

But it’s the ability to pause, rewind, and replay the videos that is often cited as a key feature — an enhancement over traditional, face-to-face instruction.

I could pause, rewind, and replay the videos from “Introduction to Statistics” too, of course. Indeed, this was part of my rationale for signing up for this particular offering. I’d heard that the instructor at the local community college wasn’t that great, and while I had no idea if the professor from the university offering the correspondence course would be better, I trusted that the technology would make it easier for me to work through any confusion. Pause, rewind, and replay.

But if you don’t “get it” the first time around, and you don’t “get it” after the second viewing, what then? You can hit pause, rewind, and replay over and over and over. It’s still the same lecture, still the same explanation. Repetition doesn’t necessarily facilitate understanding.

* * *

“What’s new” then about online education — particularly the versions that rely heavily on videotaped lectures? (Because, let’s face it, it’s not the instruction itself that’s that innovative. A videotaped lecture is still a lecture.)

Is this innovative because it’s available online versus on magnetic tape? Is this innovative because of the ease of distribution that comes with the digital format? Is this innovative because, as many MOOCs now tout, you’re joined in watching the videos by hundreds of thousands of other students?

* * *

I watched the videos of “Introduction to Statistics” alone. (Paused, rewound, and replayed.) There was no way for me to stop the lecture to ask the professor a question. There were no office hours. There were no classmates with whom I could study.

But there was the Internet. There was the Web.

Yes, even decades ago there were bulletin boards and forums and chat rooms that (conceivably) I could have turned to for assistance. (“Help! I don’t understand this question about standard deviation!”)

But I didn’t. I watched the videos alone. I struggled. I paused, rewound, and replayed. I learned alone.

* * *

Watching videos alone. Learning alone.

This “old” experience with distance education feels very much like my recent experience with many MOOCs — including, I should note, Udacity’s “Introduction to Statistics“. Even though there were tens of thousands of students taking the class with me, I felt a very similar isolation, a similar distance from the professor and my peers as I did with that stack of videotapes and textbooks.

Part of this is a failure of instructional design. Part of this is a failure of pedagogy. Part of it is a failure of community — a failure of both certain online education startups in fostering community and a failure on my part in joining it.

But it’s important to recognize that these aren’t new failures. While we tout the “newness” of education technologies, we’re still struggling with old practices that these tools haven’t yet served to upgrade.

This is the third of a four-part colloquy of articles, each piece contributed by authors who have intimate experience with the struggles, failures, and successes of online learning programs. The series kicked off with “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It” by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel and “The Failure of an Online Program” by Sean Michael Morris. Look for “How Not to Teach Online: A Story in Two Parts” by Bonnie Stewart on Friday.

[Photo by Zsolt Halasi]