What’s Wrong With Distance Learning

Thoughts from an expert teacher

by Marsha Familaro Enright

Very, very often when I tell people about our project to open a new college program, their first question is: “Will it be online?”

And they have good reasons to expect that it would be: online is vastly cheaper than in-person teaching and it can reach people everywhere in the world. Companies like the Floating University are trying to utilize the best of online resources to game-change higher education. With top lecturers and teachers, they have online tools offering certifications rather than the whole enchilada of a college degree.

Let’s look at a few of the best things online education can do:

  • Provide the best lecturer on Shakespeare, or Feynman, or Von Mises, when and where you want to hear him or her.
  • Provide the best demonstration of angular momentum at 3 AM when you can’t sleep.
  • Teach you how to make a bowtie or what the ancient Romans ate for lunch, just by Googling.
  • Connect people who might never have a chance to meet, and help them collaborate.

In other words, the Internet gives you access to an enormous amount of the world’s knowledge about facts, ideas, skills, procedures, and analysis.  And it allows you to connect with experts you might never be able to access otherwise, as well as and others all over the world. This is a fabulous resource for learning! And, don’t get me wrong, the RIFI program incorporates all these uses.

But our program requires a significant amount of in-person learning, and some people look askance at this.

Tales from the Front

About six months ago, I mentioned this issue to an applied scientist from a big lab who’s a friend and supporter. She immediately said “Oh, remote learning is never as good as in-person!”

I was a bit surprised because of the usual enthusiasm which technical people have for remote learning: they’re often the most adept at using these resources. So I recently interviewed her to get her story:

About once a month she is either teaching or learning something for her job. She often teaches other scientists, engineers, and technicians how to use the information on the website of their mutual organization—which has facilities all over—and how to explore new ideas for their projects.

Sometimes she teaches on-site but, often, she’s using teleconferencing or video-conferencing with a group of people at another site. During these sessions, they see her presentations, hear her voice, and see her image. If she sees them, it’s not close up, but they can make comments and submit questions.

She finds that the distance teaching never works as well as in-person. And she’s thought a lot about why. “If you go into a restaurant decorated with real plants, there is a different feeling than if the plants are artificial. A different atmosphere. The same thing happens in class.”

So what are some of the differences?

It’s in the Atmosphere

Remotely, “I have no idea what the audience is understanding,” she says. She can’t see them in enough detail in order to notice whether they have questions, are confused—or bored out of their minds. Consequently, she can’t adjust her presentation to suit their needs.

If she could see their faces and their reactions, she might get a sense of how to interact with them. I suggested having shots of their individual faces onscreen while she teaches, but she thinks that would be too difficult to absorb, probably because they would be separate images and because they would lack the detail of the real.

What’s the data she’s likely missing? Information from 3-d body movements, facial expressions, subtle eye movements, tone of voice or even pheromones that would indicate mood and reaction.  I also wonder how comprehension is affected because  mirror neurons can’t operate.

Mirror neurons identify and respond to others’ emotional expressions, helping us navigate social relationships. It’s the lack of these factors that can make email and online discussion a nightmare of misunderstandings.

Further, she thinks the remote participants feel, “’I can’t learn how interested the lecturer is in ME.’ A good teacher genuinely wants to help you learn something,” and, consequently, conveys excitement, interest and, concern about whether the participants are learning and enjoying what’s being taught.

And this “atmosphere,” these motivations, are essential to encouraging audience questions. Why does this matter?

Because questions, are crucial to good learning. They allow the teacher to find out how the students are understanding the material, and adjust what she conveys to suit them. And they ensure that the students are actively learning, i.e. thinking about the material in relation to their other knowledge. This is how new material is best absorbed and integrated.

Yet, most people are reluctant to ask questions, for a variety of reasons.  A common one: they don’t want to appear stupid or draw attention to themselves. Asking a question in front of the whole class is akin to public speaking—and most people fear that worse than death! They’re often concerned about appearing stupid, ignorant, or foolish.

My friend’s experience with in-person classes demonstrates this problem and how it’s even worse with remote learning. In a one-hour in-person class, if the class is very active, she may get a dozen questions. Infrequently, the class engages in a deep conversation. But when she runs the class remotely, she rarely gets any questions whatsoever, and never a deep conversation.

Another example is what happens to her group’s “Zen presentations.” These involve perfectly crafted visuals with no words on them. The pictures have to convey everything the teacher is going to talk about, so the audience can grasp the ideas just by sight. In the presentation, the teacher gives them the words to go with the picture.

Further, the Zen presentations have to have exactly the right pace to be successful—with the teacher conveying casual thoughtfulness and considered responses to the audience. This simply cannot happen through mere audio or even video.

What’s the Relationship?

She’s identified a few of the causes for these problems with remote education:

  • There’s a slight time shift, a gap between when she talks and when they hear, causing participants to be unsure of the right time to ask questions; this results in a feeling of formality, making them hesitate to speak up,
  • It allows no eye contact, so the participants can’t convey when they might have a question; consequently, the participants don’t know when it is polite to interrupt the speaker,
  • The teachers and participants cannot easily share knowledge and interest in the subject, even interest and motivation for the work they are doing together, yet motivation is so important to learning.

As a result, a weak relationship develops between teacher and participants, or participants with each other.

Instead of mutual engagement, learning some new, fascinating information and working well together towards their mutual goals, there is a void, the void of the learning relationship, of the learning and working community in which they should belong.

The importance of the personal relationship becomes very apparent when she compares two different kinds of classes they have at her organization. In one, they learn information and procedures, and rather introverted, scientific and technical types are the participants. They often do this remotely.

But the other kind of class is with extroverted, sociable types who need to work with the engineers, scientists, and technicians. The purpose of the class is to help the more sociable types, administrators and the like, learn how to interact with the technical people. These classes can never be done remotely.  There’s simply no way the people can learn what they need except in person.

Maybe When We Have Holodecks?

I think my scientist friend has trenchantly identified some of the basic problems with distance classes of any kind. That doesn’t even address the needs of young people going to college, who are trying to learn not only information but also how to think well and what kind of person they want to become.

However, that’s a discussion for another day, soon.

As far as my friend’s classes, she thinks it would be just as productive to tape her presentations and let participants watch when they like, as to do them remotely.

Alas, until we develop holodecks, those simulated reality rooms in which people meet and interact on “Star Trek,” online education cannot replace the kinds of learning only possible with in-person interaction; the full learning relationship. We’ll talk about that more in the future.

“Joy, feeling ones own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and 
capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul.”

(Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 87)


5 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Distance Learning”

  1. Miss Enright, your piece is excellent and makes wonderful points. I had just written a relatively long comment of my own, which for some reason disappeared when I clicked on another tab, so I won’t try to reproduce it…but speaking as a former T.A. who for around three years taught calculus to undergraduates (and loved it), and as a former student (many years’ experience there!) I will say that you and your friend are quite right. Nothing can replace the intellectual interaction of the live classroom.

    Along these lines, have you ever read E.M. Forster’s science-fiction story “The Machine Stops”? About a dystopia in which people never are actually in one another’s physical presence–all interpersonal contact occurs via the Machine, and in fact to be in the physical presence of another is rather nasty and to be avoided at all cost. Except by the odd–rebel, iconoclast, explorer?–anyway, the *really* Odd, of course.

    I’m a great big huge fan of high-tech and in particular of computers (programming and managing telecommunications systems put my bread on the table), but they don’t replace human gatherings (even of just two people), and they also don’t replace books. (Someone, perhaps Robert Campbell?) observed that reading the computer screen is harder on the eyes that reading ink-on-paper.)

    If you haven’t read the story, I see that a “research programmer” at UIUC (in the U of I’s “National Center for Supercomputing Applications” has considered it important enough to put up online at


    Thanks for your article. :>)

  2. Hi Julie, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. No, I haven’t read that story, but I will now! Thanks. If you want to resurrect your longer comment, I look forward to it.

  3. As someone who has taught in distance learning programs (and now administers them), I agree with Marsha and the person she quotes in the article: despite the hype, distance learning is inferior to in-person learning. The reasons why are starting to get addressed in work like this, by Christine Rosen:


    I think Rosen’s book, The Extinction of Experience, is scheduled to come out this year.

  4. Hi, Marsha,

    I haven’t forgotten this article! So when I was investing the Volokh Conspiracy at the WaPo just now and saw the link to this article on what online skim-reading (A. R. must be spinning in her grave!) may be doing to our capacity to read properly, I thought of you and thought that if you haven’t seen it, you might be interested. I was born with a book in my hands, and I’ve noticed it’s getting harder and harder to concentrate. Not just on books, either. I have trouble staying with a movie much more than a half-hour. I’ve always put it down to age (that first book was almost 71 years ago), but I can’t help thinking there may be something to the article’s thesis.

    It’s entitled “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say,” and you can read it at

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html?tid=pm_pop .

    I hope you’ll have a good summer, with lots of students.


  5. Thanks for your comment Irfan – sorry I just found it! And thanks for the further comments and good wishes, plus the great article link Julie! I put it on RIFI’s Facebook page and tipped our hat to you. I mention there that I do wonder whether student performance in reading is related to their poor lower school education.

    All the emphasis on testing in the past 20-30 years has gutted the reading of literature and careful, in-depth learning.

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