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Will Online Learning Limit Students' Creative Potential?

In a New York Times article entitled "Engineering Serendipity," author and transportation scholar Greg Lindsey writes about the ways companies are trying to get their employees to casually interact in the workplace, in the hopes of spurring creativity. In a much-talked-about example, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently banned telecommuting, citing the need for a more collaborative culture.

Lindsey points to similar developments at other companies:

That same day, Google provided details of its new campus in Mountain View, Calif., to Vanity Fair. Buildings resembling bent rectangles were designed, in the words of the search giant's real estate chief, to maximize "casual collisions of the work force." Rooftop cafes will offer additional opportunities for close encounters, and no employees in the complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away from one another. "You can't schedule innovation," he said, as Google knows well, attributing the genesis of such projects as Gmail, Google News and Street View to engineers having fortuitous conversations at lunch.

For those of us in education, it's hard not to wonder how this argument might apply to what's going on in schools. Education Week reporter Katie Ash recently wrote about how some schools are redesigning physical spaces to be "more interactive and mirror the workplaces of today and the future." She explains that the "new look puts a high priority on small-group work, use of mobile devices, and project-based digital learning."

At the same time, more districts and schools are moving to blended- and online-learning models, which reduce face-to-face time with their teachers and peers. With the new focus on "personalized learning" through technology, will students be less collaborative and innovative? That is, leaving the social aspect aside (the argument that kids need to learn social skills together is already prevalent), is there any fear that with less student-to-student interaction, kids will miss out on idea-making?

For this to be a viable case against online learning, you'd probably first have to establish that one of the major goals of the education system is to inspire students to create (as is clearly the goal at Google or Yahoo). But as critics of the test-score-focused accountability movement will tell you, that's not an easy case to make these days. Would love to get your feedback in the comments section below.

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