The real trouble with online ed

The Real Trouble With Online Education is that its critics won’t give it a chance, writes Geoff Cain, director of distance education at College of the Redwoods (California), in Brainstorm. He takes down Mark Edmundson’s The Trouble with Online Education in the New York Times, which charges online courses aren’t “education of the very best sort.”

Edmundson describes face-to-face classes as places where there is engagement, dialogue and the inadvertent creation of academic community . . .  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.

. . . 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.

Online education isn’t “a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” as Edmundson claims, writes Cain. Some courses include Skype sessions with teachers and tutors, others mix classroom and online learning, still others are self-directed.  Then there are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which some see as the “single most important experiment in higher education.”

Edmundson thinks online classes are “a monologue and not a real dialogue.”  That’s true only of filmed, canned classes, which are not the norm, responds Cain.

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.

Online learning can work just as well as face-to-face learning, Cain argues, citing WCET’s No Significant Difference, which compiles years of research, and New Study: Online Classes Just as Good.

Michael Horn agrees that what matters is how a course is taught, not whether it’s in-person or online.

In my years of research on online learning, what I’ve found fascinating is that a vast majority of online learning teachers report that they get to know their students better than they did in their traditional face-to-face classes, and they say they can address students’ questions more effectively. Of course, just because a course is online does not mean it will be good, just as not every traditional lecture or classroom experience is good or bad.

Online education delivers “value that in-person instruction simply cannot (and succeeds marvelously and ever better),” writes Steven Spear.  For many people, the alternative to online education is no education at all, he adds.