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Can You Really Interact With Online Courses?

The ways that education tends to be presented in the traditional classroom is often through students just being spoken at. This reliance on lectures to deliver educational content increases right up until you get a chance to graduate with a Bachelors’ degree. Lectures are a big part of higher education, until you reach Masters’ level. So up till then, any real interaction takes place in tutorials; that is where you engage in conversation, and where you are tested, and where it is difficult to feign knowledge.

Learning needs some level of interaction; can this happen online?

Learning needs some level of interaction; can this happen online?

A little trip down memory lane takes me to the year I spent at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium. Unlike the tutorial-based system I was used to at the University of Sussex, all education was provided through lectures, each with over a hundred participants. And they were all taking notes by using a highlighter pen on printouts with the text of the lectures in, almost like they were just checking that the lecturer was sticking to the script. I learnt absolutely nothing.

Apparently, cognitive psychology research has shown that “people … do not remember much of what they hear in lectures … if you supplant the lecture with a presentation that is designed to work more in accord with how most people learn, test scores go from 41% for the … lecture class to 74% for the interactive class” ( I don’t think this comes as much of a surprise to anyone.

This dependence on tradition is as dangerous for universities as it is for other industries that have relied on ancient tools. People can take 400 books around in their handbags, they can carry around an entire record collection in the palm of their hands, and they can study well away from an educational institution. The issue is: how are you encouraged to use the information in the lecture? The lecture itself can be easily delivered online, better than in the traditional classroom; there will be nowhere for a substandard lecturer to hide when you can see lecturers from Harvard or Cambridge at your desk, replaying them at any time of the day or night.

Which brings us back to the question of real interaction that underpins real education with real practice in a real community. We know that tutorials are perfectly possible online; they can be supplemented with student discussions within designated online forums, and with online student conversations. And it goes without saying that all these interactions, be they written, audio or video can be recorded and watched again – something that was never possible in the old model.

Good education is, and has always been, about delivering the right teaching materials and message to receptive minds in the appropriate cognitive style. And ensuring that is increasingly the job of a great facilitator or tutor.


Deslauriers, Loius, Schelew, Ellen and Wieman, Carl, Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, Science 13 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6031 pp. 862-864

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