Remote Learning and the Motivation to Learn

Yesterday, on Facebook, I posted this article on the history of remote learning.

Remote learning by radio and books in 1937.

Remote learning isn’t new: Radio instruction in the 1937 polio epidemic
by Katherine A. Foss
5 October 2020

Here are some of the comments that followed:


In this article, Professor Foss talks about remote learning by radio starting back in 1937. Some, however, would say remote learning started long before 1937. Here, I argue that it started around 3,200 BCE.

The value and importance of remote learning starting in 3,200 BCE.


In many cases, it is not the ability to learn from home, but the motivation.


Yes in deed. And, there are many other factors as well.

For example, one of the motivations for wanting to go to an elite institution of HE (e.g. Harvard, Stanford) is that you can make valuable social contacts by going to school there. You may be in a good position to form a business with personal friends (both students and faculty) with academic talent – and, in some cases, money. Further, you may have formed a personal relationship with faculty who can give you a good job recommendation. Also, employers are inclined to like you if you have friends who can be of assistance to you and the employer.

Notice that the advantages listed above have little to do with formal learning. However, they do have something to do with having face-to-face interactions with people who can help you in your career, especially those with money and social connections. This is one reason why elite institutions exist; it’s a big part of social stratification.

In addition to the stratification issues, there are the pros and cons of studying on one’s own. We want students to learn to enjoy reading, which I would say is a form of remote learning. The book’s author may have died a long time ago – so, very remote indeed.

Strangely, however, some feel that a student studying alone at a computer terminal is being harmed in some way, while they love to see that same student curled up with a good book. Personally, I think this is a form of substrate bias, although the high resolution of book fonts does offer an advantage over the relatively low resolution of a computer screen.

However, not all online learning is synonymous with learning alone. The idea of student led team learning (aka Tutored Video Instruction) has been around since the early 1970s. Personally, I feel that the TVI learning environment – i.e. small study groups of around 3 to 7 students – is better, generally speaking, than the large lecture hall. At Berkeley, we used to tell jokes about our big lecture halls – e.g. “How many rows back do you have to sit in one of our big classrooms before it becomes distance education.”

For more on TVI, see John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction in the reference section below.


Another factor that helps determine a student’s willingness to learn remotely has to do with the quality of the online learning materials.

When it comes to entertainment, some parents feel guilty about putting their kids in front of a TV. Without the TV, kids demand (and generally deserve) attention from their parents. Sometimes a parent has the time to give, and they give happily. But, sometimes they don’t. In these situations, some parents are very tempted to plop their kids down in front of the TV. Why – because they know their kids will be mesmerized by the entertainment programming that pours out of the TV set. For better or worse, their kids have a motivation to watch entertainment television, and parents sometimes have a motivation to let the TV set transfix their children.

Often, the programming developed for online learning does not engage the students it’s intended for. So, students become bored and would rather be entertained by something with little or no educational value. There are many reasons why entertainment programming may be more attractive (and motivating) than online educational content. One of those reasons has to do with budgets. How much money is put into developing high-quality educational programming (straight video and interactive)? And, do teachers see this allocating money this way as a good thing, or not.

When the pandemic hit, I think it’s safe to say that most schools were unprepared to substitute online learning for face-to-face learning. Further, once the pandemic subsides, many teachers (and students & parents) will be very happy to go back to face-to-face learning. So, the motivation to create high-quality online learning content will subside along with the pandemic.


I think it is funny because, in my field, you can get all of the knowledge and skill you need from the Internet. The problem, of course, is certifying your skillset. And some skills, I would argue, require a guide or mentor. That is what I try to be. I put together skills modules online, complete with readings, activities, self-quiz and hands-on virtual labs. I monitor them and give help as needed I also tell them their goal is to be resourceful. I use the example of walking up a down escalator. You must keep moving to stay in the same place, or move a bit faster to get ahead.



At Berkeley, most faculty develop their course materials by working in Lone Ranger mode. Our unit helped them do this, in part by helping them apply for small grants (on the order of $500 – $1,000) and by providing them with graduate and undergraduate student assistants.

As for teaching methodology, my boss was a professor of Education with a PhD in Educational Psychology. So, our unit used her expertise and that of her graduate students to help inform the use of edtech at UC Berkeley.

Very early in my career, I learned about the TVI approach (i.e. small student led study groups that collectively watch lecture videos broken into small segments). I thought that approach had a lot of merit, and that maybe it could be used as an alternative to the big lecture class. When I started to push for that idea and actually received some faculty and NSF support for doing TVI experiments at Berkeley, I soon learned about the political dimension of edtech. Senior faculty put an end to the experiment and prevented the non-tenured faculty who wanted to work with me from doing so. The senior faculty did this to preserve the status quo. They weren’t interested in learning about the pros and cons of TVI (e.g. learning outcomes, costs, etc.).

When I started working as Berkeley’s representative to IMS Global (an edtech specification and standards setting organization), I got to see how other schools and organizations such as textbook publishers went about the task of developing and organizing content. Mega-universities such as the British Open University use the Professional Development Team approach. Textbook publishers also use this approach, especially as they start to move into the development of online courses.

Most faculty who work on their own and who’ve never developed a major textbook work in Lone Ranger mode. They may know about the Professional Development approach, but they don’t use it.

Also, most faculty have never been professional content developers or teaching faculty in a mega-university setting. At places like the British Open University, the profession content developers are expected to do just that, and there’s no question about who owns the content at the end of the day. The British OU owns it. Also, the teaching faculty at the OU are expected to use the content developed by the professional content developers at OU headquarters. They are not free to select the textbooks they might prefer to use.

So, both approaches – the Lone Ranger and the Professional Development team – have their advantages and disadvantages. I’ve come to believe that an advanced form of team learning (i.e. TVI with both video and online lessons) would be better than the lecture hall in most cases. Also, I’ve come to believe that for the courses that already have textbooks, it would be good to have either textbook publishers or a mega-university (i.e. a US version of the British Open University) develop online courses that could be used in the team learning context.

Here’s something on the professional development team approach. In the next comment I’ll provide a link to something on the Lone Ranger approach. In the comment after that, I’ll provide a link to something on TVI.


Bates, Tony

Tony Bates on the Lone Ranger Model of Courseware Development

Brown, John Seely

John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction

Kirp, David L.

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

2 thoughts on “Remote Learning and the Motivation to Learn

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