Home > Uncategorized > How Not to Attack Online Education

How Not to Attack Online Education

Can online classrooms ever live up to the experience of being in a live classroom? In Thursday’s NY Times, Mark Edmundson argues that online classrooms can never reach the high standard of engagement and education offered by the traditional university classroom, even the traditional university lecture. For Edmundson, the truly great classes are taught by professors who are in “dialogue” with their students by reading their responses to the material and improvising and adapting to their class’s needs. Such improvisation is impossible in online education, where filmed lectures are played on repeat with little concern about who might actually be watching. Edmundson describes watching a pre-filmed lecture course on the New Testament from Yale (I might have listened to a few lectures from the same course, coincidently, though they were actual class lecture recordings) that he describes  as “very good” but not “great and could never have been.” Thus, online education is inherently inferior to “real” education that takes place in the classroom.

But Edmundson seems to be missing the real argument about online education, and Clayton Christensen’s “disruption model” can be useful here. The sum of Christensen’s argument is that industries are “disrupted” when the market for low-margin or small-level tasks and products are taken over by smaller companies. Big companies are happy to let smaller ones deal with these lower-level products, while they focus on higher-margin products. Eventually, though, these smaller companies begin moving up the product line with their more efficient ways until they’ve taken over the market altogether and made the establishment obsolete. The way smaller companies get their foot in these markets is by making products cheaper, more convenient, or–as is often the case–of lower-quality that is sufficient enough to win customers. You don’t have to make the perfect product, but one sufficient to win enough customers with a low price. This, to me, is the power online education has that Edmundson doesn’t seem to get. Of course it will never be “ideal,” but no one is assuming it will be. The question is will it be “good enough,” where the savings available in streamlining distribution of education outweigh the marginal loss in quality. For that is ultimately the role online education is likely to play: not a medium that cancels out the classroom entirely, but provides a different format that provides a quality education experience–certainly not the best–without the same costs involved with the ideal model. When Edmundson claims that the Yale online lecture series was “very good” but could never be great, he might have inadvertently scored a point for disruptive online education.

Edmundson even seems to undercut his argument in the very comparison he makes, between a live lecture class and an online lecture series. The large lecture hall already implicitly admits that higher education has made compromises with an “ideal” model in the name of keeping costs down, and it provides no principled reason why an online classroom is inherently inferior. No one, for example, would assume that a lecture class of 100 students is the ideal way to learn about Shakespeare, or evolutionary biology, or single-variable calculus. But we do it anyway, because classes of 10 students, or even one-on-one tutorials, are unfeasible. So what is stopping us from jumping to an online format?

I also found Edmundson’s claims that ideal professors can read and adapt even in large-classroom settings not very realistic. Such an ideal assumes that every student in the class is responding to the material in the exact same way. More likely, from my experience, 5-10% of any given class (no matter how large or small) is impatient that you are not being challenging enough or moving faster; 30-40% are confused about something you’ve said or read, but they are too timid to mention it and they rarely share the same confusion; and the rest are generally apathetic enough that they are not too concerned about what they are not understanding. That’s a bit jaded, I’ll admit, but my point is that “improvising” is going to gain you little advantage in these situations. We might like to believe in the “master” teacher that can reach every student, but such an ideal is closer to myth than reality.

There’s a lot more than can be said on online education, but the point I want to make here is that tactics like Edmundson’s, which is to set up a (false) ideal of the university classroom and then claim that online education will never match that standard ignores the reality that online classrooms are not meant to be an ideal, but to be an adequate substitute. And since we have already grown accustomed to substituting lower-quality, more-efficient models of the classroom in universities, we can’t expect to halt online education by saying it fails up to an ideal which is already a compromise. Instead, the case against online education is not to argue against its quality, but against its very structural limitations. There are ways of learning and teaching that simply cannot be replicated by an online classroom. And that is what needs defending.

What that is, I hope to discuss more later.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Graham
    July 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Perfect, thank you! I am a critic of many online programs (University of Phoenix’s format, to be specific). However, I find the same haggard argument that every “brick-and-mortar” advocate likes to bring up (the interaction lacks quality and substance!) to be moot as long as the students are learning the same material and getting the same benefits (or better benefits, at least, than they would without the education). Add in to this that many online learners are adults with jobs and family demands and the convenience of online classes far outweighs any supposed value from live professors. Live professors come as a packaged deal with commutes, other students who are generally much younger (and annoying), exorbitant parking fees, and a lot of time spent doing things other than interacting directly with the learning material.

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