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

July 23, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: Samir Chopra

Online v. In-Classroom

Photo Credit: Lance Murphey for The New York Times

By Samir Chopra:

“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 teacherhave 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?

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.


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