Online vs. In-Classroom Education, Contd.

My response yesterday to Mark Edmundson’s ‘online education is not real education’ New York Times Op-Ed sparked a set of interesting comments in response. I’d like to briefly take those on today as I think they help round out the discussion quite nicely. (Please read the comments in full at the original post.)

My Brooklyn College colleague Chris Ebert wrote:

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.

Chris is spot-on. My worries about online education are not as grounded in pedagogical concerns as much as they are in worries about rent-seekers out to make a fast buck, displacing perfectly good modes of education, and continuing the national attack on public education and teachers in general, led by the likes of the vile Michelle Rhee. I do not, under any circumstance, want to see the best kinds of classroom and face-to-face interaction replaced by shoddy online content,   prepared hastily in a rush to cash in on the gold rush of diverted educational dollars. If these ‘content-providers’ see cash cows rather than students, we are in deep trouble. (Scratch that, we already are.)

Reader Krishna amplifies the points I made by pointing out some of the advantages of online education and the lack of a perspective from Edmundson on the actual ground realities of face-to-face instruction:

[Edmundson] 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 don’t think however that online education necessarily means fewer educators. Indeed, given the care required in developing materials for online education, it seems that there will be plenty of opportunities for trained professionals–school teachers and professors alike–to develop quality content. And as Krishna points out, online education need not be exclusively ‘virtual;’ rather, it could be suitably hybridized to take advantage of the best of both modes.

And Laura Gibbs–who actually teaches online classes–writes:

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.

Laura touches on the crucial issue of participation, a point that I alluded to in my first post. For many kinds of students–shy, verbally inarticulate, for instance–the online mode of interaction will actually be facilitative of greater interaction with their peers and their teachers. (Stories of meek, timid students who are firebrands online are legendary; didn’t we learn that from Usenet? )

A great deal of anti-online education pontification comes from folks that have a narrow, impoverished view of human communication, condemning it to one mode of interaction, face-to-face, without paying any attention to the richly varied ways and modes that human beings have of learning from each other. This is an ironically anti-humanist stance, to say the least.

2 thoughts on “Online vs. In-Classroom Education, Contd.

  1. Once again, so well said, Samir! It has always struck me as very ironic that the professors who are 100% invested in face-to-face teaching are usually great readers, great writers, lovers of books, people who understand absolutely the power of the written word to convey a personal presence beyond the limitations of space and time with face-to-face communication. Richly varied – just as you say here. That’s why I keep hoping that with the opportunity to actually EXPERIENCE good online learning, they might change their minds.
    Just today I began a MOOC that I am really excited to participate in – the Fantasy & Science Fiction Coursera course being taught by Eric Rabkin (Univ. of Michigan). I am very impressed by how it is set up! Of course, as a massive online course, it is quite different from what I teach – but I am so glad at the way they have incorporated peer feedback into the course, and how the course itself is based very much on the experiences of reading and writing, with an emphasis on the social dimensions of both reading and writing. Rabkin did a wonderful job of conveying that in the opening materials for the class and it makes me confident that I am going to have a great online learning experience as a student in this course… which should also help me find ways to be a better teacher in my own courses as well.
    I found out about your blog post re: Edmundson from someone at Google+ … and I am going to go share this post over at Google+ now. I’m glad to have found your blog!

    1. Laura,

      Thanks – glad the points made resonated. I look forward to your report on your experiences in the MOOC you mention (on a great topic!).

      And thanks for sharing the post!


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