The Human Element
March 29, 2010
Douglas E. Hersh’s close crop of auburn hair and neatly trimmed goatee are clearly visible in an expandable window on my desktop. So are his light tweed blazer and matching tie. On a table behind his desk sits a purple orchid, lending color to his office — 2,600 miles away from mine.
The technology that allows me to see Hersh’s face as he speaks to me is not new. But Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara City College, believes it may hold the key to solving an old problem that has plagued distance education since its beginnings: the retention gap.
A growing body of research has all but obliterated the notion that distance education is inherently less effective than classroom education. But even the most ardent distance-ed evangelists cannot deny persistent evidence suggesting that students are more likely to drop out of online programs than traditional ones. The phenomenon has many explanations, not least the fact that what often makes students choose the flexibility of online learning — being too busy to enroll in a classroom course — can also make it harder for them to keep up with their studies.
But Hersh believes there is another major factor driving the gap between retention rates in face-to-face programs and those in the rapidly growing world of distance education: the lack of a human touch.
And unlike the reality of adult students’ busy lives, Hersh says the human-touch problem can be solved. In fact, he thinks he knows how.
Hersh’s solution is to incorporate more video and audio components into the course-delivery mechanism. Most professors who teach online already incorporate short video and audio clips into their courses, according to a 2009 survey by the Campus Computing Project. But it is rarer, Hersh says, for professors to use video of themselves to teach or interact with their online students — largely because the purveyors of major learning management systems do not orient their platforms to feature that method of delivery.
That is why Hersh convinced Santa Barbara in 2008 to abandon Blackboard, the LMS industry leader, in favor of Moodle’s open-source platform, which he used to build the straightforwardly named “Human Presence Learning Environment.” Read more on Human Presence Learning Environment brings human element to distance education…