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Online Education: Quality and Efficiency

Back to online education.

In my last post, I critiqued Mark Edmundson for attacking online education by constructing up an ideal image of the college classroom that, unfortunately, is simply untenable. Edmundson’s focus on important to note, because it is representative of how the  online education debate has generally ossified between two camps: the “quality” camp that holds fervently to the belief that online education can never replicate the power of a physical classroom, and the “efficiency” camp who see online education as a way of cutting higher education costs.

As a graduate student and a wannabe-one-day professor, I feel very strongly with Edmundson that online education cannot be a permanent substitute for the type of profess0r-student relationship that comes from physical classrooms and direct interaction. It is not simply about downloading the professor’s information, but understanding the nuance and subtleties of a social learning environment, where a student is an integral part in their own learning and the learning of others. I had an online class as an undergraduate: Health and Physical Fitness. I read the material and took the quizzes for an entire semester in two days. I don’t remember a single thing, except some vague notions about good/bad cholesterol and that strength training is best performed in sets of 12. I don’t know why. So yeah, defending “quality” is essential.

But why should we assume that online education undermines quality? If professors and defenders of the traditional classroom want to help shape the role of online education, I think one route that we might take is to emphasize how online education could actually improve the quality of the college experience and not let the debate be succumbed to a drag-out, quality-vs.-efficiency war of attrition.

For example: a professor teaches Intro to European History to 120 students each semester. She gives two lectures a week for a total of three hours, and then the class breaks up into 6 labs once a week, led by graduate students. This professor has been teaching this class for around 10 years, and has a fairly steady routine of lecture notes, assignments, exams, etc.   Online education advocates might say that she should record the lectures, transfer the lab to an online discussion group/chat room, and suddenly we have a class much cheaper to administer (no big lecture halls to build, can have more night students, etc.).

But rather than argue that such efficiency shouldn’t trump traditional quality, why not use these formats to improve quality? Let’s say the professor does record her lectures (which were becoming fairly rote anyways). But she still creates the structures of a semester-long course so that students cannot “binge” on lectures  right before the final exam. Each weeks lectures are available only for that week. Students can watch them at anytime, day or night, but if they don’t finish them by, say, Thursday night, then they miss them entirely–just like a real lecture. Then, instead of labs of 20 students led by graduate students, our professor–who is now no longer occupied 3 hours a week giving the same lectures over and over–meets with 3 lab classes of 40 students every Friday. Instead of three hours spent droning on to an auditorium of 120 students, she is running discussion sessions  three hours a week in a much more intimate, exciting setting. Even with recorded lectures (let’s say she recorded them last semester), she can vary her syllabus over the semester by altering the readings for Friday’s discussion. Plus, she will be even more in touch with students’ responses to the material because she is in a smaller classroom setting every week with them, instead of hearing reports about how things are running from graduate students.

Now, 40 students still makes for an unwieldy discussion group, but it is better than 120. Plus, smaller classrooms are much easier to build and manage. But instead of sacrificing quality for efficiency, I would argue that you have a higher-quality course here, one where the professor is more directly engaged with the students while the online experience–the lectures–are only marginally different. Universities could trumpet these hybrid classrooms as a way of increasing faculty-student interactions and bringing class sizes down. Overall, as a student and as a professor, I would take the hybrid model any day of the week. In my experience, smaller classrooms are almost always better than lecture formats for both parties involved.

Online education is not a zero-sum tug-of-war between idealistic quality and pragmatic cost efficiency. Those of us who are invested in defending what is unique and important about a university experience–seminars, critical discussions, the opportunity to interact closely with an expert in the field–should not cede ground too quickly. Online education can be used to the improvement of the college experience, if we can think more creatively about it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    It appears you actually know very much related to this particular subject matter
    and it demonstrates as a result of this specific blog, termed “Online Education: Quality and Efficiency | Prolusion Six”.
    Many thanks -Vanessa

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