Dear Commons Community,
The New York Times has an op-ed article today on online education written by Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and is the author of “Why Read?” By 7:00 am this morning, three colleagues of mine had already alerted me to the piece. Essentially Professor Edmundson tries to make the case that online learning is problematic mainly because it lacks the equivalent interaction among teachers and students that enables the development of communities of learners . He even tries to make the case that a large face-to-face lecture class is a more “collaborative” and “collective enterprise” than an online class.
I respectfully disagree with much of what Professor Edmundson proposes but there are kernels of ideas that need further elaboration.
Online classes that minimize interaction between faculty and student and student and student could very well be poor substitutes for face-to-face instruction assuming that the face-to-face instruction is highly interactive and not just a one-way presentation/lecture by the instructor. In my opinion, it is not the modality but the level of interaction built into a class that is important. Given the social media fluency among students and teachers, developing quality interaction online is not difficult to achieve and furthermore is not bound by the time and place limitations of face-to-face classes.
Professor Edmundson also refers to the large MOOC-type courses that enroll tens of thousands of students. While these are strictly experimental at this time, the early models seem to rely on a good deal of video lectures as the main form of delivery. Unless these video presentations are followed up by mechanisms for students and faculty to interact, I would tend to agree with Edmundson that this type of course is not as pedagogically beneficial as a highly interactive face-to-face or online class.
Lastly, Professor Edmundson also assumes that students in face-to-face instruction are all highly engaged in the material regardless of the pedagogical skills and techniques of the instructor. We know that this is not the case. There are excellent teachers and there are less than excellent teachers. It is my opinion that the excellent teacher can develop lessons that will engage students regardless of the modality. The less than excellent teacher will likely not engage students regardless of the modality s/he uses.
Good synopsis of the issue at hand. I think that many of the detractors of online education fail to remember sometimes that people learn differently. The traditional cookie cutter approach to education does not apply anymore. I believe that new technology and the advancement of educational platforms will continue to push the limits of education making obtaining a degree available to all who can’t afford to go the traditional route.