Over the last semester we have all participated in a class with a very different learning format from that which we are used to. Whether we signed up for an online class or not, almost all of the educational content of this class has been presented online. Independent, online learning, presents a very different learning experience than the traditional university course. Rather than seeing and hearing a professor lecture and discussing our learning in a social, classroom setting we have obtained most of our information through online textbooks, tutorials and videos and have discussed it using Facebook, Hootcourse and this blog. The question is: Is this new form of education that does not revolve around the face-to-face social experience between a teacher and a classroom bring the same benefits? Is social interaction important for learning? Do the social capabilities of the internet (i.e. Facebook) sufficiently replace in-person communication?
In her article, "The Developing Social Brain: Implications for Education, (http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(10)00173-X )" Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explores the research that has been done on the role of social interaction in learning. Humans have a social brain; we are capable of intuitively knowing what certain facial expressions and body language mean. Babies developing language skills depend on social interaction for learning. Blakemore highlights a study (Kuhl et al., 2003 ) in which American babies are exposed to Chinese Mandarin through three different methods: 1) social interaction (reading and playing) with a native speaker, 2) videos of that same speaker or 3) audio recording of that same speaker. The only group that displayed the learned ability to distinguish between Chinese sounds was the group that experienced social interaction. The benefits of social interaction in learning are not yet understood. It could be that the infants are more motivated by social interaction or that the adult speaker is able to tailor their behavior to the child's needs in a social experience.
This doesn't necessarily point to the absolute necessity of social interaction for academic learning; language acquisition is different from the type of learning done in a university classroom and the age of the participants and their brain development is significantly different from that of the typical student enrolled in this class. Blakemore explores one of these issues by examining the difference in brain activity in adults and adolescents. The brain undergoes significant changes in Medial Prefrontal Activation during adolescence. This area is active in social cognition tasks. Research suggests that the development of social learning skills is still taking place late into adolescence and that continuing to learn and have real-life social interactions during this period is crucial for the development of the brain.
She concludes her exploration with more questions and an analysis of implications of this research for education. It is clear that some types of learning do require social interaction and that this is true even into late adolescence (and perhaps beyond?). For now, the question as to whether classes such as this one are as educationally valuable for the human brain is waiting on more research . For now, we get to be the judges of that.