Online v. In-Classroom Education: Not Quite a No-Contest

“AH, you’re a professor. You must learn so much from your students.”

This line, which I’ve heard in various forms, always makes me cringe. Do people think that lawyers learn a lot about the law from their clients? That patients teach doctors much of what they know about medicine?

This is an exceedingly strange way of beginning an essay–purportedly underwritten by a humanist perspective–advocating for face-to-face education in the classroom. I’m afraid Mark Edmundson’s effort (‘The Trouble With Online Education,’ New York Times, July 19, 2012) in this direction does not get much better from there on.

Edmundson commits the classic fallacy of condemning Option A (online education) in comparison to Option B (face-to-face classroom instruction) by exclusively comparing the worst of A to the best of B. When face-to-face education goes well, it can approach the lyrical heights its enthusiasts are fond of pointing out. But often it does not. I am quite fond of recounting the story of the computer science professor who, in one of my first graduate school classes, liked to pay attention to his Chinese and Indian graduate students by mimicking their accents when they spoke up and asked questions. Perhaps those students would have preferred the online version of his class? A pathological case, you say. But the  interactional idiosyncrasies of teachers are burdens that face-to-face classroom education has to bear; they are not bugs, they are features, ones that can sometimes work against a student and the pedagogical process.

Examples like these can be multiplied by the dozen: rude, inattentive, unprepared, disorganized teachers are all possible in the classroom (as are rude, unprepared, inattentive, disorganized students). Shall we compare the pedagogical disasters that follow with what happens when the well-prepared online lecture-in video or text form–suitably annotated with follow-up material, is worked through by the diligent, motivated online student?  Edmundson speaks of the necessity of dialogue. Is a dialogue present in the pathological cases I point out? Is it absent in the online case I indicate? Does the teacher have to be physically present to enter into a dialogue with the student? Is no dialogue possible in online forums associated with a class? It would be strange if not, given the amount of ‘conversation’ that takes place in internet meeting spaces.

Online education is often as bad as its detractors make it out to be. But sometimes it can work well, meeting educational objectives for a particular student population in a way that traditional classroom education cannot. As my examples above should make clear, in saying this, I am not just pointing out the obvious logistical advantage demonstrated by online efforts such as those of Udacity and the Khan Academy: that educational materials can be made available to a large demographic that benefits from them. This is not insignificant; it is quite possible that the scaling options available in online education may be the only way to enable  some forms of specialized education to a large number of students.

Edmundson asks in a tone of anticipatory triumphalism:

But can online education ever be education of the very best sort?

Perhaps not. But is the education offered in classrooms always ‘education of the very best sort’? If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then on what grounds does Edmundson refuse even a cursory examination of the possibilities of online education?

8 thoughts on “Online v. In-Classroom Education: Not Quite a No-Contest

  1. Yes, Samir, the author of this article presents a false choice! Also, I get the sense that the lecture style the writer advocates is not the one I would choose, nor does he really explore the feedback loops that would allow a professor to gauge learning in a real classroom. I imagine that the on-line courses he explored are also probably not the best out there.

    However, this is a good article for starting a discussion. I am concerned that the current obsession for on-line education is not motivated by extending access, which would be a wonderful goal, but rather by for-profit educational corporations that have shown themselves to geniuses in rent-seeking on tax-payer funded resources at the state and federal level that are allocated to education. I would be curious to know more about the corporate intermediaries that are facilitating access for Yale, Harvard, etc.

    Again, I am convinced that the real university is largely successful in educating people. It may be that the virtual university can be as well, but it needs to prove that it is. If universities are adding virtual content to increase access, marvelous. If they are doing it to subtract from the \’real\’ university\’, shame on them. If its expansion is more a result of corporate lobbying, even worse, because the #1 goal of the for-profit educational corporations doing the lobbying is to increase share-holder value. The fact that a push for the virtual university comes at a time of persistent state underfunding of higher education makes me worried. I\’m not saying the virtual university can\’t work, but let\’s consider the political contexts around this discussion.

  2. It’s almost always a case of “follow the money”. The reader base of the NYT strongly supports a certain base that needs online education to fail since good online education would mean the need for fewer teachers (and while he focuses on the university, what is true there will undoubtedly hold for K-12 too)

    Thus in an article gloriously free of the constraint of data and evidence, he advocates for a model on one-on-one teaching that is blatantly absent in US university education lecture system (one can only imagine what the school scene is like). Most lecture halls have 30+ students and ones for introductory courses can have in excess of 200. Does Edmundson really believe one-on-one focus from the professor is credible?

    He ignores the advantage of repetition/review that online clearly possesses and face-to-face clearly lacks. He also ignores the ability of online education to be enriched by a face-to-face component (TAs, etc.) that traditional face-to-face often relies upon for real discussion and learning.

    I doubt a MIT or a Harvard or a Stanford is driven by a cost-cutting motive. They don’t need to be.

  3. Thanks very much for this – very well put! Since there was not a comment option at the NYTimes piece, I wrote to Professor Edmundson directly, inviting him to enroll in one of my online courses for Fall so that he could have some actual experience of a good online course (very good? excellent?) online course on which to base his judgments. I’ve been teaching online for 10 years now and I far prefer it to the classroom. For the kind of highly participatory classes I teach, in which I encourage all students to pursue their own learning paths and to share with one another, online is a far better option than the traditional classroom. I don’t want to be the center of attention (as is almost inevitable in the classroom), but instead I want the students and their work to be the center of attention. That is not inevitable in an online class, of course, but it is much more feasible online than in the classroom. I hope that Professor Edmundson will at least reply to my email, even if he does not have time to spend on actually taking my class; it is very frustrating to see someone in a position of considerable authority passing such judgment on a topic that, honestly, he does not know much about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: