TLO: Part Four: A Pedagogical Paradox

In response to the second of my blogs on teaching and learning online (TLO), on “Putting the Pedagogy First” (Aug 28), Evan Simpson and I posted a couple of comments and responses. One of the questions that came out of that exchange was: What can we do when we’re teaching and learning online that we cannot do when we’re teaching and learning in traditional classrooms?

One of the most important answers is: TLO can connect teachers and learners from all over the world, without anyone having to go anywhere, which is based on the fundamental assumption that being connected is an inherently good thing. However, as I “confessed” in Part One (Aug 14): “My relationship with technology of all kinds – online and off – is ambivalent.”

So, I fully understand those who find the constant connectivity of social networking stressful, and even “invasive.” But when it comes to teaching and learning, I believe that more connectedness is always better than less, and TLO makes that possible on a scale that was impossible before.

In education, the pedagogical importance of this connectedness was realized long before mobile phones and social networking sites, as part of the move away from the “transmission model” of “teacher as technician,” in which information is simply transmitted from the teacher to the student, like pouring water into an empty vessel. One of my favorite damning definitions of lecturing as a form of teaching, usually attributed to Mark Twain, says that: “College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”

These days, more educational systems are embracing the idea that there’s so much more to teaching and learning than just transmitting facts. Instead, it is increasingly seen as the collaborative, co-operative, co-construction of knowledge, skills, and understanding. And these are areas where I believe language teachers and learners can claim to have been at one of the forefronts of TLO, connecting students and teachers in different countries. For example, articles in TESOL journals starting appearing in the late 1990s, soon after the Internet started to become widely available in the mid-1990s, reporting on all kinds of international, email, pen-pal language learning projects.

One of the recurring findings of those early studies was that students who were often quiet in their physical language classes were surprisingly active in online environments, such as communicating via email. This leads to what I believe is one of the most interesting paradoxes of TLO, which is that, even though the teachers and students can be so far removed from each other in time and space, more communication can actually happen as a result of that distance.

This paradox also relates to what I wrote in Part Three (Sept 4), that: “it is the democratizing potential of TLO that may turn out to be one of the most important changes brought about by TLO.” So, to wrap-up with our opening question: “What can we do in TLO context that we cannot do when we’re teaching and learning in traditional classrooms?” Answers include: Connecting teachers and students across time and space who might otherwise never have been able to work together with great(er) opportunities for collaborative, co-operative, co-construction of knowledge, skills, and understanding, as a result of the democratizing potential of TLO.

But as with all teaching and learning methodologies and technologies, there are some limitations with TLO, some of which we can look at next time, in Part Five. In the meantime, if anyone would like to post details of their experiences of the limits and limitations of TLO, I’d be very happy to hear from you!

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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