Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Joys of Online Education

This blog post is in response to Mark Edmundson's Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on July 19th. Here's a link to that article.

Professor Edmundson has a poor perception of online education based on his experiences at the University of Virginia where he claims online education "came close to tearing the university apart." He describes a situation where administrators were essentially forced to create an online program. As a result, they hired an outside company to create the online courses for them, apparently in a hurry.

Throughout the article he shares a bit about his own philosophy of teaching and education when he mentions cringing when someone suggests he might learn something from his students. He apparently has a preference for lecture-based classes. In other words, based on the article, he sounds very teacher-centered rather than learner-centered. I'm not criticizing this, just making an observation that will be relevant later in my response.

He also makes several negative claims about online education. These include statements such as:
"Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor."
"It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue."
"The Internet teacher...can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms."
"You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning."
"Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely."

As someone who has been both a student and instructor of online education courses, I could not disagree more with Professor Edmundson's opinion. I am not familiar with the University of Virginia's online program, but based on this article, it sounds as if the introduction of online education for this university was rushed and filled with strong negative emotion as a result of the dismissal of the president. It does not surprise me, therefore, that the resulting program might have been below par. As for the online course from Yale he mentions, it sounds more like a video of a lecture than an actual online course. I would like to reassure the professor that this is not the reality of online education as a whole. It certainly has not been my experience in the MSAE program at Indiana University.

I would argue that the "trouble" is not with online education. It is in the design of the online courses. My experience with online education is that it is better able to engage multiple learning styles than face-to-face classes, making it far from one-size-fits-all. Most of my courses (those I've taken and those I teach) are mostly dialogue. They involve learner-content, learner-learner, and learner-instructor interaction. While much of this interaction is asynchronous, video chats and live satellite feeds provide ample face-to-face time, and you might be surprised how much you can glean about a student's mood and enthusiasm from the written word. I have also found my online courses to provide far more vital learning communities than any face-to-face course I've ever taken. A lot of bonding takes place and a lot of extracurricular sharing and topic discussion, as well.

I'm happy to say that I have only had two online courses that could be described as sterile and lonely. And, yes, they were miserable. If this is your experience, I feel for you. However, the problem was not that they were online. The problem was that they were taught by people who did not know how to teach online courses. It has been my experience that instructors who prefer teacher-centered, lecture-based education make poor online instructors. There is nothing wrong with that. There are people who are really great an online instruction, but who fail miserably at face-to-face interactions. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. The problem is when someone who is not well-suited to online instruction is forced to teach an online course. That is a management problem, not an online education problem.

My advice to Professor Edmundson is to read the following books and articles and to consider taking D525 - Introduction to Distance Education Systems through Indiana University's Master of Science in Adult Education program to experience what a good online course is like.

Recommended Reading:

              *Clark-Ibanez, M., & Scott, L. (2008). Learning to teach online. Teaching Sociology, 36(1), 34-41.  
               *Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2004). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for   creative instruction (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

              * Gonzalez, C. (2009). Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: A study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses. Higher Education, 57(3), 299-314. doi:10.1007/s10734-008-9145-1  

              *Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2009). Distance education in the digital age: Common misconceptions and challenging tasks. Journal of Distance Education, 23(2), 105-122.  

               *Larreamendy-Joerns, J., & Leinhardt, G. (2006). Going the distance with online education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 567 -605. doi:10.3102/00346543076004567
               * Liebowitz, J. (2003). Teach people skills totally online? College Teaching, 51(3), 82-85.  
               *Lynch, M. M. (2002). The online educator: A guide to creating the virtual classroom. New York, NY: Routledge.  
               *Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

               *Porter, L. R. (2010). Developing an online educational curriculum: Technologies and techniques. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.  
              *Selwyn, N., Gorard, S., & Furlong, J. (2005). Adult learning in the digital age: Information technology and the learning society (New edition.). New York, NY: Routledge.  

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