02/11/2013 08:50 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Distance Learning Can Augment But Not Replace Experiential Learning

The ongoing discussions of distance learning are gaining in intensity, and I see a few signs that the sophistication of the discussion is growing. Distance learning is being presented as a low-cost way to disseminate information around the globe. I agree that Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCS) have an important role to play in our high-tech brain-based global economy. They are a way to introduce some of the world's best minds to some of the world's most enthusiastic learners. But let's remember that there are many different types of learning and many different media that can be used to teach different types of lessons.

When I wrote about distance learning last fall, I observed that:

"There is clearly a type of learning that takes place in the lounges, cafes and bars in and around campus that simply can't be found on a Facebook page. The designers of distance learning programs have developed what they term a "hybrid" model that combines live with distance learning to deal with this issue. There is a type of communication that requires that we sit in the same room and interact with each other... That is why we find ourselves flying thousands of miles to break bread with a treasured colleague or driving all night to close a deal with a valued partner or customer. That is why distance learning will not replace live and in person communication and learning. It will augment live education, but will not eliminate it. Educators should not worry that robots will replace them."

The opposite of distance learning is proximate learning. That is the type of learning that requires that people are together in the same space. In my view, the most important form of proximate learning is experiential learning. We don't simply read about what it is like to be homeless, or see it in a video or hear about it in a lecture; we talk to homeless children, we visit the places they eat and sleep, we try to connect to the full range of perceptions, emotions and information that they experience. That exposure to the real world and its context provides a type of deep learning that is both intellectual and emotional. It enables a student to develop a fuller understanding of the concept they are studying.

This is not to denigrate the usefulness of technology in preparing for immersion or experiential learning. A web search, video depiction, phone conversation, and email exchange can help ensure that the student is prepared to make the most of the experiential element of their learning.

In the environmental science and policy and sustainability management programs I direct at Columbia University, we include experiential elements throughout. When we teach water management, our students have been known to visit water treatment plants and go to nearby rivers to test water samples for purity. When we teach ecology, our students visit forests and other natural environments to see and touch the life forms they read about in their textbooks. When we teach green buildings, our students learn to conduct an energy audit in an actual building.

This engagement in the real world reinforces and makes more vivid the lessons of academic papers and texts. They create a tactile, sensory and visual experience that can be recalled by a student to help them tap into and remember the technical materials they have read. Both of these masters programs culminate in capstone group analytic projects for public and nonprofit clients. Here, our students produce analytic reports for clients actively engaged in the profession our graduates plan to enter. They learn first-hand how professionals deal with the opportunities and constraints that confront them. There is no substitute for this first-hand experience and exposure to the real world.

At the elementary and mid-school level, I often see children from Bank Street School for Children (located a few blocks from the Earth Institute) walking down Broadway on their neighborhood studies. They visit shops and see what happens in the backroom. When my daughters were younger and went to school there they would go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and watch cooks make fresh ravioli, or to Queens to see the Colombian and Greek communities in Astoria. This was not just tourism. These visits were part of a curriculum that involved study, reading writing and discussion. They learned to look closely at the world around them and to understand their home city on a variety of intellectual and emotional levels.

One of the problems with online education is that when the lesson becomes uncomfortable or annoying the student can push the mute button or turn off the computer. It is too easy to walk away and disengage. Experiential learning is the opposite. The student has invested time, effort and money to be in the learning environment they are experiencing. Leaving the learning site is far from cost-free and so there is more incentive to see the situation through and learn despite discomfort or challenge. People raised in the internet age have many ways to communicate and receive messages. The technology can be liberating but can also constrain teaching, learning and social interaction.

In Mobiledia, Maragret Rock referring to the HBO series Girls noted that: of the main characters explains the "totem of chat" to her friend, who is puzzling over the lack of text messages from her sometime boyfriend. "The lowest, that would be Facebook, followed by Gchat, then texting, then email then phone. Face-to-face is of course ideal, but is not of this time," she replies, placing benign resignation on the "not of this time" phrase.

I suspect that it will take another generation, raised with all this technology and less intoxicated by it, to learn how to assert control and bring back "face to face." For educators, the key is to try hard to maintain and improve face to face or proximate education. I think the best way to do that is to learn how to use the new communication technologies and integrate them into traditional and experiential teaching and learning. Distance learning has a role in face to face education. These technologies can increase interaction between and among teachers and students, enabling the time devoted to in-person learning to be more efficient and effective. My view is that distance learning technologies can and should augment but not replace in person education. Face to face education is ideal and should remain very much "of this time."