The Polo Parable

Below is an online education parable I have been telling in talks for a few years now. I have finally written it down in order to publish it in my BackBurner column of AECT’s Tech Trends, but thought that autounfocus readers might enjoy it as well.

The Polo Parable
Once upon a time there was a prestigious university with an exceptional reputation for excelling in both academics and athletics. Even the school’s water polo team had found their way to the conference championship eight of the last ten years, taking home the trophy seven times.

On a cheerful Friday afternoon the university’s athletic director enthusiastically loped into the office of the water polo team’s coach. “Coach,” he blurted out, unable to restrain his excitement, “I’ve got some wonderful news. A fabulous opportunity has opened before for the university. When I first describe the opportunity you’ll probably feel some confusion, but that’s ok. Pioneers must pave their own way, and as Excellent University maintains its leadership position moving in the next century we will all occasionally find ourselves slightly outside our comfort zones.”

The coach listened with interest. “Ok – so what’s the opportunity?” he asked sincerely. His inclination to skepticism had been temporarily overwhelmed by his genuine wonder at the spectacle of the gushing AD.

“Polo is a great sport coach, and your organization continues to bring pride to Excellent University by demonstrating a commitment to excellence that spans individual recruiting classes, consistently attracts the best talent in the world, and proves season after season that your organization really is among the elite in the world.”

The AD was beside himself with anticipation, despite the fact that he obviously knew the content of the revelation he would make any second now to the coach. As the coach leaned back in his chair, he found himself increasingly amused by the crescendo of the AD’s vocal and physical animation.

“So what’s the opportunity? How can we help?” the coach asked again, all curiosity. The AD simply stared at the coach, apparently unable to bring himself to speak. “Well?” prompted the coach, impatience winning the now lengthening battle against his wonder.

“There’s a new kind of polo coming to the Conference, coach. You won’t believe this, but they play it on horseback! Apparently it’s all the rage in Asiatic countries!”

As the AD continued the coach’s initial expression of bedazzlement gradually gave way to the empty gaze of utter bewilderment.

“Your polo organization is one of the world’s finest – as polo has traditionally been played in the Conference. That’s why the President and I have every confidence that you will continue that tradition of excellence as your players evolve from the primordial pool of the twentieth century and majestically take the reigns of the modern age.”

“Evolve from the primordial pool of the twentieth century?” bleated the coach, sounding more like a flustered John Cleese than the pride of Excellent University.

“I know!” the AD agreed, mistaking the magnitude of the coach’s reaction for an indication of every emotion but those the coach was actually feeling at the moment. “How often does this grand an opportunity present itself? Think of the additional opportunities that will open to our students! Imagine the pride of the alumni as they watch us lead our peer institutions into this new territory! Envision the new facility!”

“But we don’t know anything about horses!” the coach protested, his unease becoming apparent to the AD.

“That’s why the university has an equestrian staff!” the AD replied in a tone obviously intended to sooth the coach. “All you need focus on doing is playing polo and winning. It’s still polo, you know. You have to score. You have to prevent the other team from scoring. You play offense. You play defense. There’s a ball. Remember coach,” the AD removed the four inch thick binder labeled “Play Book” from the bookshelf against which the coach was leaning before he nearly jumped to his feet, “you and your staff have been studying polo for decades. You know what’s effective and what isn’t. You know how to motivate your team. You know the formations and plays that score or prevent scoring. Do all the things you did before, just do them on horseback instead of in a pool.” The AD’s voice was thick with a type of condescension that adults use with children who are obviously not sufficiently sophisticated to understand what is happening around them.

The coach couldn’t help but remember Singing in the Rain. In his mind the voice of the eternally clueless R. F. Simpson rang out. What was required to make the move from silent films to the newfangled talkies? “It’s a picture. You do what you always did – you just add talking.” The Dueling Cavalier had turned out ok. Perhaps the AD was actually right.

After a pause that was – to both their surprise – not at all uneasy, the coach mustered his courage. “Well, I certainly do feel outside my comfort zone. But with the confidence and support of the administration we will make the move. I promise you, the President, the Regents, and the alumni that Excellent University’s polo program will continue its tradition of excellence.”

The moral of this story is a simple one, but do not mistake it. The moral is not that online education is a stupid thing to do; on the contrary, as I have written before, I believe it to be a moral imperative.

The moral of the story is that the concatenation of English words “move my class online” is perhaps the most preposterous sequence of syllables ever to escape the mouth. And yet we all unconsciously fall prey to the subtle wiles of the siren’s song – “just do what you always did.” Those tried and true techniques you have battle tested in the classroom will serve you well online. “Trust what you know.” Do what you have always done! That’s the responsible thing to do.” Imagining that classroom teaching techniques can be successful transplanted into an online environment is even more ridiculous than assuming that the water polo play book will, unaltered, lead to a winning polo season on horseback.

As Apple encourages, instructional designers and technologists must Think Different about online teaching and learning. We need to reach out via this collection of technologies to those from who opportunity has separated itself for whatever reason. But, just as importantly, we need to address online instruction on its own terms, and not pretend that it is just a slightly resolution-impaired photocopy of the face-to-face classroom experience.

(This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0133246. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.)