Erik Jentges

Jan 17, 2022

Online education has a promise - and a danger. An essay on 'power and learning'.

Online education has a promise - and a danger. A very short essay on power in the learning experience.

tl;dr: Power organizes the chaos and hides in the technology that structures the communication.

As kids, we have experienced the power of teachers. Growing older, we may have even - at times - opposed them. With mixed results.

But we've grown up to become self-directed, empowered learners.

We remember that the power differential between instructors and students matters. We know it from sitting in assessments and waiting for our final grades.

But what about power in cohort-based online courses? How much does it matter for shaping the learning experience?

Without trust, forget about learning.

Power helps structure social relations. It gives order to chaos. In groups that form to learn, trust is needed to agree on who gets to share knowledge. There are different ways to establish trust in the (online) classroom.

There is the sage on the stage and the coach on the sideline. In frontal lectures, experts share their knowledge and learners sit, take notes, and comply. Coaches support active learning and students give it a try. But without trust, forget about learning.

It is a dynamic affair.

The silent agreement between experts and learners fluctuates. The more mature the learners, the more it can become a conversation. True authority respects the learners' independence. In online courses, instructors are comfortable being guides, not gurus.

A classroom is not a democracy. But there are votes.

A class, a cohort of learners, is not a democracy. Science and learning are not democratic. If 70% agree that the world is flat, we shouldn't agree on this to be correct. The common understanding is that the scientific method

has precedent to find the most elegant, lucid and plausible explanation.

But learners do get to vote.

With their feet.

They have the choice to come, stay, or go away.

Online education has a promise - and a danger.

The abundance of knowledge with the emergence of new platforms and institutions has the promise to make education affordable. That'll be great, because education is the premise of progress in every society.

So what's the danger?

In cohort-based courses, power does not seem to play much of a role. Nobody is forced to learn. Come as you are.

But power is still there and organizes the chaos.

It hides in the technology that structures communication.

And it hides in the pull of learners coming, in the retention of learners staying, and in the exit of learners turning away from other choices for their education.

It hides in the absence of accreditation institutions.

I ask myself: will teachers and their institutions continue to champion the scientific method? Will they keep their oath to seek the most plausible explanation?

Erik Jentges

Exploring higher education futures | Coaching instructors to teach with more impact || Head of D-MTEC Teaching Innovations Lab at ETH Zurich