Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From Online to Blended -- Part 1 (High Tech, High Touch)

Last update: Tuesday 7/28/15
Way back in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle noted that man is a social animal. Twenty-five hundred years later, his judgment stands, unchallenged by modern behavioral science. It also stands as a warning about the limits of innovations, e.g., online education programs, that don't give sufficient importance to people's needs to interact with one another.

Part 1 (High Tech, High Touch) | Part 2 (Uber & Airbnb) | Part 3 (Barnes & Nobel, Paradise Lost)

High tech, high touch
In 1982 John Nesbitt became an eminent "futurist" when his book Megatrends became a best seller. His projections about large trends that would dominate our society's future development were either dead wrong or became true so fast that nobody reads his book anymore. Indeed, the future comes upon us so quickly nowadays that we all have to become "futurists" in order to survive and thrive. Which smartphone should we buy? Which apps should we download? Which online publications should we read? Which online banking services should we use? The wrong choices of hardware or software can leave us with our hands full of "abandonware" within a few years, if not a few months.

Nevertheless, buried in Nesbitt's book was a durable gem, a modern corollary to Aristotle's ancient dictum that's worth remembering. Nesbitt postulated that the innovations that would be most successful were the ones that embodied two features: "high tech" and "high touch." Of course the most powerful new stuff would embody high technology; but as per Aristotle, the most successful innovations would also use their "high tech" to bring us into "high touch" with one another. 

Nesbitt never confirmed his late 20th century conjecture, i.e., he never systematically classified innovations in order to verify whether the most successful ones really had high tech and high touch components. He didn't do so  because his conjecture seemed to be so obviously true. Indeed, the fact that 21st century smart phones and social media were adopted by more people in every country in the world faster than all of the previous hardware or software innovations in human history provided the most convincing, albeit anecdotal support for Nesbitt's hypothesis.


Inadequate online programs

Which brings me to MOOCs and other forms of online education. Question: Why do we want online courses to be "massive"? Answer: Because traditional education, being a labor intensive operation, is too expensive. Higher education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for more and more people, and so has the subsequent lifelong education/training that has become mandatory for survival in our computer-accelerated information economy.  A few thousand employees at Facebook produce high quality services for a billion consumers at affordable prices. Indeed, Facebook is "free". So we would hope that massive enrollments of students per teacher in online courses would lead to drastically lower tuition for high quality education.

Unfortunately, as per Nesbitt (and Aristotle), the problem with purely online courses is their lack of sociability. Online courses don't provide opportunities for high touch, i.e., for intensive interactions between students and teachers, or between students and other students. So purely online courses, especially online courses with large enrollments, are only effective for a small segment of the student population, i.e., the students who can work productively for long periods of time when opportunities to interact with their instructors and other students are greatly reduced.