Sunday 22 January 2017

Online versus face-to-face: MIT study is a lesson for communicators

I was interested to hear from a linguistics teacher (my wife) about a report on Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s radical shift to online teaching via its OpenCourseWare program. She’d attended an address by Adrian Camm from Quantum Victoria who highlighted this initiative: part of the Open Content movement.

As a PR practitioner my focus was immediately drawn to the communication lessons MIT took from this shift and how they addressed them.

After MIT made the courageous shift to provide courses free online they immediately found that attendance at lectures dropped by 50%. They expected some falloff of course.

What they didn’t expect was that failure rates would jump to an unacceptable 15%.

MIT realised that there was much about the traditional lecture theatre teaching method, or rather lecturing method, which students were happy to leave behind. The authoritarian figure out front with the knowledge passing it ‘down’ to passive listening learners. Simply: good old one-way communication. Anyone who has attended a mass lecture with hundreds of other under-grads will relate to this antipathy.

But why the failure rate? What was wrong? Clearly students were not missing the lecture format.

MIT research showed that what students were missing was the stuff that online could not provide. Mostly that’s direct face-to-face engagement; all those often intangible elements that are part of how we interact when we’re together.

We need that togetherness: rubbing shoulders; body language; facial expressions; eye contact; and ‘vocal colour’. It turns out it’s an essential part of learning and effective communication.

MIT addressed the problem by setting up TEAL Rooms i.e. Technically Enhanced Applied Learning. Here students could get together and approach learning via a format vastly different to the lecture. TEALs are all about informality, interaction, discussion and problem solving in groups. Face-to-face stuff.

Failure rates dropped to 2%.

The communications lessons I took were:–

1.         think through the expectations for online versus other media: not just face-to-face. What works best for each?

2.         face-to-face interaction (as opposed to being out front lecturing: online or otherwise) is a vital and fundamental element of effective communication and, as a flow on, learning

3.         challenge the accepted norm

4.         Marshall McLuhan was right.



An MIT TEAL learning session.


-David Park