The Real Trouble With Online Education

E-learning short courses
E-learning ( London College of Fashion)

An editorial piece in the New York Times on July 19th by Mark Edmundson attempts to tell us about “The Trouble with Online Education.” Despite the fact that the author does not appear to have taken or taught an online class, and despite not having any listed credentials in the field of education, online teaching and learning, or instructional design, Edmundson, and apparently the editors of the New York Times, feel he is qualified to to make the pronouncement that online courses are not “real” courses.

He asks “can online education ever be education of the very best sort?” In that loaded Gatsbyesque question, does he mean the kind of education the 1% can get at the Ivy Leagues? No, most online classes that I know of or have experienced were not small settings where we sat with a professor in big leather chairs sipping sherry. Not everyone can afford such an education and maybe that is why some folks seem to be threatened by online learning – the barbarians are at the gates! Online classes are classes of a different sort. And here is my real problem with this article: the author does not know what happens in an online class so he assumes it is not what happens in a face-to-face class and this is just wrong. 

Edmundson describes face-to-face classes as places where there is engagement, dialog and the inadvertent creation of academic community “the students will always be running into others who are also enrolled” (I am presuming in the halls or the cafeteria – do his students not work or have families?). But the fact is, I have taken face-to-face classes at colleges (U.C. Berkeley, for instance) where the professor had no time for undergrads, directed all questions to the tutors, and did nothing to foster community. Conversely, I took an online course in 2008 from the University of Manitoba (George Siemens and Stephen Downes MOOC “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge”) and I am still in touch with students I met there – in fact, we are basically continuing what we learned in online communities. We are still engaged with one another. What instructor wouldn’t want that? In the “very best sort” of online classes, this community and engagement is deliberately built into the courses, and the research says that student engagement is the number one factor in the success of online courses. That said, I did take an online class that was poorly run: the teacher would go days without connecting with the course, the feedback on assignments was minimal and late, and there was little direction. My point is that the teaching modality does not matter if the teacher is engaged.

There seems to be a lot of this going around, there were blog postings I read through the Chronicle of Higher Ed from Siva Vaidhaynathan and Joshua Kim’s posting in Inside Higher Ed that both gave negative evaluations of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Classes) despite the authors having no experience with MOOCs or online classes. I addressed those issues in my posting “Why MOOCs Work” but I feel that there is a larger issue here. If you read the three articles together, all contra elearning, they all have this alarmist ring to them that somehow online education is a watering down of face-to-face education. You get a real sense that if the world now accepts online education as it seems that it does, and accepts badges and portfolios in place of traditional certification, that it will detract from the value of the precious face-to-face college. You know the college – the one with the tuition that has risen faster than the price of inflation, faster than the costs of healthcare, and the $250 textbooks. 

Edmundson claims that “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor.” There are too many kinds of online classes out there for this to be true: there are full online courses that include Skype sessions with teachers and tutors; there are hybrid courses; there are classes that are more self-directed; and there are MOOCs; I could go on. What constitutes an online class can be as individual as the instructor who teaches it. 

He claims that “It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” Again, he is basing this on courses that are filmed and canned but that is NOT the most common teaching modality in online education. Most online classes include discussion forums and students now are using social media and networks such as Twitter and Facebook to engage with one another, with their instructors and experts in their field of study. A glance at the research at sites like Educause would give him an idea about what is happening. 

He says that instructors can’t gauge the nuances of a class online. If  online instructors engage their online class with online discussion forums and chat, they can gauge what is happening. In fact, in some of my online English classes I got to know some of my students better than my face-to-face classes because the students will often seek out that engagement, and socialize a lot online, to make that human connection online. 

All of this points to an appalling lack of knowledge about what constitutes online learning. I can’t believe that a college professor would accept similar judgements from a student with nothing to back them up but what “seems.” All three authors, Edmundson, Vaidhaynathan, and Kim, evoke what “seems” as evidence. It is not like the research is hard to find. There have been hundreds of studies that show that there is no significant difference between the outcomes and success rates between online and face-to-face learning. All Edmundson would have to do is to take a look at WCET’s “No Significant Difference” webpage to find a collection of the research that goes back a hundred years. Or to look at any recent study like the one reported in The American Interest called “New Study: Online Classes Just as Good.”

The real trouble with online education right now is that online education is currently being defined in unfavorable ways by those who feel threatened by it. Online education is not the same as face-to-face education. Just as you should not believe the hype behind anything “new” (even if it just new to the press) – don’t be dissuaded by those who are so embedded in the old paradigm and have so much to gain by its persistence that you miss out on some great teaching and learning opportunities. 

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