Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NOT The Trouble With Online Education

My Ph.D program recently shared a link to a New York Time’s Op-Ed piece about online education that still has my blood boiling. “The Trouble With Online Education” certainly does not present any new ideas or arguments about (against?) online education (nor did it when the piece came out in July), but I suppose the timing of reading the piece during the first week of our semester – a semester when I am teaching two online classes – sparked a need to respond. Whatever the reason, there are several points the author makes that are really bothering me as an educator in general and online teacher (as well as former/ongoing online student) in specific.

As an educator it really bothers me that Mark Edmundson is offended by the notion that professors might learn from their students. Yes, I am the content specialist in my classroom and as such usually know a lot more about my subject than my students, but I would argue that if you are not learning from your students then you are doing it wrong. Education is not just about transferring chunks of information from one head (yours) to another (your students). That is an outmoded and ineffective model and one of the things wrong with education today. Education is about exploring ideas and if you are not giving students the opportunity to explore, understand, apply, and share in your class then you are missing out and, worse, you are cheating your students.

Edmundson then goes on to ask the question: Can online education ever be education of the very best sort? This is a valid question and one we should continue to ask, but what irks me is the assumption that a lecture class is the gold standard by which education should be measured. Just this week Cathy Davidson argued that “If we profs can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” She makes many excellent points about the need for education reform and how/why online education will be a major player in that reform but she also points out that lectures are an economic expedient but not good pedagogy. Davidson points out lectures may (if done well by the expert performers Edmundson lauds) be entertaining, but research shows students do not retain information presented in this format or understand how to apply it. Just yesterday Matt Reed agreed with Davidson and noted that lecture has never been “a particularly effective way to teach.” Online classes can be and are designed and taught in similarly ineffective ways all around the world, but as Davidson and Reed point out there is also great potential for innovation in both the traditional classroom and the online classroom if we adapt to new circumstances and knowledge and employ new strategies and new tools. Whether we like it or not, times are changing and we profs need to reform and “turn into the skid” or the university will indeed be torn apart as Edmundson so fears. The fault will not be with online education but will instead be with profs (and institutions) that refuse to evolve and grow.

The idea that Edmundson presented which really made my blood boil is that an online class cannot be a genuine intellectual community because it is a monologue rather than a dialogue (ironic much?). He goes on to describe online education as anonymous, sterile, abstract, and lonely. I thought my head my spin off my shoulders after reading this opinion which was apparently formed after watching a pre-filmed online class. Well, of course that model of online education is not as rich as the live lecture (which is already pretty ineffective) but apparently Edmundson is not aware of the tremendously rich and varied pedagogy taking place around the world that harnesses the power of technology to make online and blended classes exciting and challenging places to learn. It makes me wonder how Edmundson would respond if his students present such a poorly supported argument.

I would urge anyone who questions the exciting class design possible in online and blended classes to visit such collectives as HASTAC and Hybrid Pedagogy to find overwhelming support to counter the idea that online education is anonymous, sterile, abstract, and lonely. I strive to make my classes an interactive community with dynamic, collaborative projects and my class activities and assignments are constantly evolving inspired by the amazing work being done by my friends, peers, and colleagues around the world. This is an exciting time to be an educator and I believe our students are enriched by the experience. Sometimes my class activities and assignments don’t work out as planned (or hoped) but then that was true when I taught face-to-face. Often my online space is messy but then so was my traditional class space – we were often loud too. But this week, our first week of classes at my institution, we have begun building a community. I shared personal tidbits about my hobbies, family, and dog and invited students to share as well. As we interact as a group, we have talked about favorite books, movies, TV shows, and video games as well as tattoos, crafts, and pets. We are finding out who is creative, who is nervous about technology, and who is incredibly busy. After only three days, 22 students have posted more than 150 messages to each other in our Community forum. Sure I have included some prerecorded videos to explain assignments but there are no lectures. Instead we will continue to share, discuss, challenge, and question – and I know that I will learn from my students just as they learn from me and from each other. I don’t know how Edmundson defines a “genuine intellectual community” but I’m pretty sure we’ve got one going on and I know we are not alone.


  1. I admit I'm conflicted about online courses. I deeply believe in the benefits of the digital humanities, so it may seem counterintuitive that I'm not completely on board with online courses. I firmly believe that online courses do increase access to education, which is great. I haven't taught an online class yet, partly because I'm a little afraid of designing a bad course and I also haven't had the opportunity yet.

    I have TA'd for online classes that have been wonderfully engaging, but I've also TA'd for online classes that were disasters, both in terms of student engagement and pedagogy. I think that's where my real concerns lie - in the pedagogy. I have seen (and heard) of a lot of laziness in designing online courses (including the horror of basically transcribing lecture notes and throwing them on the course site) and there can also be a lack of institutional support to help profs design good courses. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try; that's not what I'm saying. I just worry that so many don't try and think of it as an easy way to teach, without changing their method at all.

    See? I said I was conflicted!

  2. You are exactly right. Many institutions don't provide the support to help instructors learn how to design engaging and effective classes. Similarly, many assign online classes to instructors without ever paying attention to effective teaching. At my own institution there is no oversight at all and I know there is huge variation in the effectiveness but no one checks -- despite the fact students pay a hefty extra fee for the privilege of taking an online class. It is a huge moneymaker for the university but that money is not used to actually support instruction.

  3. You're spot on with the idea that we need innovation in both online and onsite classes. I teach one class that has students both onsite and online and others that are (at least on paper) onsite only. But I post all of the course materials—lecture video in the "blended" course and lecture notes in the onsite courses—to the web so that all my students have the option to come to class or to work independently. (I'm in a somewhat odd position where I haven't quite figured out how to make collaboration work for me.)

    What makes it work, though, it that I believe in the mantra of a former department head who said that "brain time isn't equal to butt time"; that is, the time a student spends in his seat (listening to a lecture) doesn't correlate with what they* learn.

    I teach writing in an engineering program, and I want students to learn to write engineering reports. So one of my assignment says, "Critique the abstracts of three papers relevant to your research work in terms of the standards for abstracts given in X, Y, and/or Z resources." Instead of sitting on their butts in my class, the students spend their time studying the principles from X, Y, and/or Z on their own and then applying those principles in their critiques. It's not really less "butt time," but it's much more *engaged* time. (And if I put my mind to it, I think I could build in some of your collaborative work, too....O)

    From what I see in this blog, I think you're doing exactly the right thing with your classes. And I, too, hate the popular pabulum that online learning just can't measure up to the best of lecturers. I'm sorry, but while I know education has some of the same "star power" that Hollywood does, I also know that many excellent educators work long and hard for little recognition to do work that does as much or more for the students. Sure, some teachers are not as good as others, but in what discipline is that not true?

    And universities are indeed hugely short-sighted in not funding distance education to make it as good as it should be—but they also aren't doing anything about the dull, educationally bankrupt lectures that go on in all too many onsite classes, too. So I don't think we can fault them for one without the other. But that's another point well taken.

    I admire your willingness to address all these things in your blog!

    (*Yes, I use the singular "they" intentionally.)

    1. Thanks DJ - I love the brain time isn't equal to butt time because that sums it up quite beautifully for me!

  4. I am currently adapting two of my courses To be offered online instead of in the classroom. They are very different courses and will require very different modes of presentation online, but I think the key is for us to make thoughtful decisions about how best to present the material so that students learn (and we learn from them!). There is no "right" or "wrong" beyond the mandate that knowledge be created between students and faculty.

    1. You are so right! Thoughtful decisions are the key - what works for you, your students, and your content - those are really the issues that matter. Although the more I experiment the more that I learn being open to new ideas and willing to give them a try may lead you in directions you never thought possible.

  5. A very insightful critique, Deanna!

    I've never experienced online coursework or education -- as a teacher or student. About five years ago, I would have argued the same point as Edmundson in the Op-Ed you linked to above: "Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue." And by extension, "real dialogue" only happens in face-to-face classes, particularly those that are smaller in size.

    However, as I've accumulated more experience as a college instructor, and now, professor, I'd argue that "real dialogue" can happen in any forum; it's not really the physical space or lack thereof that matters. Again, while I haven't taught/enrolled in online classes, dialogue in digital spaces has become an important component of my identity and development as a pedagogue and scholar (and not to mention member of the profession). If I can find/create/synthesize intellectual community online, why couldn't students, given the right opportunities?

  6. Exactly! I think some folks get hung up on the idea of the technology and tools providing an additional filter between student and instructor but, of course, the traditional classroom brings with it a lot of filters as well.

  7. Gosh, this post has sparked a degree of exchange and I understand why. I am like other posters conflicted by on-line learning. I have to admit that I have registered for but so far never managed to complete an on-line course.

    I certainly have a sense of wanting the physical presence of other students, this seems to enable a stringer emotional engagement. This of course is not to place on-line or lecture beside each other. I loved being a Doctoral student. But have nodded off after a long day at work to many an internationally renowned speaker.

    In the end the question is not on-line or face to face but one of redefining pedagogy to acknowledge the varying ways in which we communicate. As much as technology redefines the social - who we are and how we live together - the idea that teaching should be insulated from this change doesn't chime. There are institutional reasons why on-line course don't work with many (perhaps some) Universities (in the UK) seeing them as a cheap alternative.

    I think they change the nature of communication, allow for more and different types of engagement, and when done well offer considerable scope. Not inherently better or worse, but different, enabling possibilities that face-to-face does not allow.