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Who is right about the value of online education? College presidents or regular folks?

September 20, 2011

This is an addendum to my previous post on the Coming Educational Divide. In a survey published this August 28th by the Pew Internet & Family Life Project, they found that 51% of college presidents claim online courses provide equal educational value to courses taken in a classroom, while only 29% of American adults say online courses provide the same value.

Why the disconnect? It is because college presidents are more educated and therefore have more informed opinions? No, that couldn’t be it, because there is no conclusive evidence that online education is equal in value to face-to-face education. How could there be? Online education is in its infancy. Also, how does one measure value of an education? For instance, there is hard evidence that indicates a student is much more likely to graduate from a university if that student has a personal connection with one or more professors at the school. Can an online education duplicate that personal connection that a student develops when getting to class early or staying after to ask questions, maybe even questions outside of the subject matter being covered in the course? How about those professors that students know is available if they want to stop by and ask a question, or just chat? According to long-term studies, those things matter greatly to students.

I’m not even going to talk about the value of a face-to-face classroom vs. a virtual one (I touched on that in my previous post), nor will I discuss the problems online educators are having with cheating and accountability. I won’t point to the importance of the public school as a social experience, how the public classroom is a melting pot (some more, some less) that opens many student’s eyes to the experience of others very different from them. I attended public school in the 70’s during the heyday of integration. My junior high school was 50/50 black-white. There were fights in the hall every week. Leon Harris cornered me in the bathroom every day and stole my lunch money. But you know what? In the end, we came together. By the time we got into high school, our class was tight. I evened laughed with Leon about the whole thing. (OK, I guess I did comment on that).

I’ve taught writing at two public universities in Arkansas. Both of them have a strong mix of black & white, urban & rural (in many ways, the rural blacks have more in common with the rural whites than with the urban blacks, but the point is they’re all mixed in there together). I love teaching these kids the personal narrative, because as their stories emerge, they begin to see things from one another’s perspective like never before. Don’t insult my intelligence by insinuating that the social learning that happens in my classroom as these students share their struggles, passions, pains, and joys with one another can be duplicated online.

Do college presidents have priorities other than the academic betterment and overall well-being of their students? Of course they do. They have to pay the bills. They face economic realities. Could the economic realities they face possibly taint their perspective on the value of online education? Of course it could. Of course it DOES. Like I said in the previous post, follow the money and you’ll learn the truth on this issue.

In the meantime, be on the lookout for the methodical process by which online companies, college presidents, new media tech companies, and all those under their sway go about the business of convincing the public that online education is just what the doctor ordered. Somewhere somebody’s got that 29% written down on a chart, and they’ve estimated how long it will take to move that number to 40, then 50, then 60… all the way till they’ve got everybody convinced – except for a few crazies like me ranting and raving about the importance of unmediated humanity. By then our voices will be drowned out by the chorus of musically-enhanced and visually pleasing personal information systems keeping the masses happily sedated.

Wow, I am starting to sound like a crazy man.


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  1. Gregg, I put a halt on my day’s events to read and respond to this :-). I really appreciate you bringing this discussion to light. I wholly agree with you that college presidents often dictate online courses to boost revenue for additional sections and cost-save classroom space. I’ve seen this happen at my former college and still hear about it from colleagues nationwide.

    One area that you spoke of concerned me, however, and I want to comment. I believe my thoughts come with some credibility: Last week, I was awarded the Sloan Consortium’s 2011 Excellence in Online Teaching and Learning award, and I have received similar recognition from other organizations three times over the past 13 years. I was not a proponent of online learning when I first started out; however, my early teaching career in a rural area where education is not accessible to everyone made me change my mind. I took lumps early on and then studied every best practice that I could. The format of my classes is unconventional, organized based on adult learning theory, but fortunately, is successful and modeled by others.

    On to my comment: Online learning can absolutely replicate the face-to-face connection between students and those who teach them, and students connecting with each other. I would argue that some of my online classes have created even richer community than my face-to-face classes. That is saying a lot, considering my F2F classes are longer, at night, and breed mostly non-traditional students who are spirited, excited to be there, and who easily connect with others. However, I am constantly in my online students “faces”: My announcements sound more like personal letters and they are frequent. I continuously update students on class happenings. I comment energetically on every single discussion forum post. I offer newsletters, Camtasia audio files, and tons of opportunities for collaboration. Countless students over the years would say that they definitely felt connected to others in their online classes, creating friendships, supportive study partners, and, in many cases, long-lasting relationships. Many students would even say that the online environment gave them a voice in ways that they didn’t expect. I would also argue that between the technology practice my students receive, the passing/editing of documents back and forth via e-mail, and, in the case of my class, the speaking in front of real world audiences, my students receive a more authentic, transferable experience in the online environment. I know I am not alone in my practices–there are many other faculty out there who are masters of online teaching.

    All this said, I do not believe online learning is for every student or faculty member, and it should not be forced on either population. When administrators demand more online classes, then funds and release time should be devoted to providing faculty with the tools they need for proper training. Faculty and students need self-assessment and readiness tools to opt-out if they find the delivery method is not right for them. As online learning continues on its upward path, this is the key disconnect. I don’t believe that administrators of any college offering online courses can purport the method as “the best option” without significant resources dedicated to those teaching and experiencing the courses.

    Once again, thank you for this discussion! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

    • Ellen, thanks so much for your thorough response. As I said in my post, I did not really offer much of an argument in favor of the face-to-face classroom (I treated the subject more thoroughly in my thesis).

      I’ll just offer a couple of responses to your points: First, you are so intentional and clear in your written communication, that I have no doubt you are an excellent online teacher. Your students are lucky to have you. Second, when access is an issue, then by all means online learning is a great secondary option. Third, regarding face-to-face vs. online, let me just say from a broad perspective that an oral, storytelling culture by its very definition takes place in an unmediated, face-to-face context. Speech, as you know better than I since it is your discipline, is multi-layered and richly textured, while writing is stark. The richness and multifacetedness of speech in a face-to-face, small group context cannot be duplicated in any other context, including what Ong called secondary orality (even live video streaming). The spontaneous, interruptible nature of an unmediated classroom lends itself to a culture of discovery and openness like no other context. That culture of discovery and openness SHOULD be at the heart of education.

      Put simply: who do you think gets more out of TED conferences? Those of us who watch the videos, or the people who go there, sit and listen, then spontaneously interact with one another about the subject matter afterward? The answer is obvious, right?

      • This is getting to be a really compelling discussion, Gregg. Thank you for your kind words. I had to laugh because what you say about an oral, storytelling culture is exactly the way those in my discipline felt about online learning in the earlier years. I remember being at an international conference during my last year of grad school. The topic of online public speaking came up. Let’s just say there was mocking laughter.

        Your words about the spontaneity and richness of a face-to-face environment are absolutely right-on. Online has it’s own nuances that are unique and beneficial. I haven’t been to a TED conference (I’m thinking I should go!), though for those who are in the audience, they are experiencing in-the-moment reactions and interactions. And that’s amazing! If someone watches videos online, they gain a different experience, but then let’s say they join a chat or e-mail someone to talk about it. This is its own discrete experience that can actually linger long after they’ve watched the chat. Neither situation is going to breed the same experience, but both have an opportunity to be meaningful. 🙂 Ellen

  2. Got my undergrad in person and my MBA online. Online has its problems, but you get out of it what you put into it. I wouldn’t value an online MBA any less than a brick-and-mortar MBA without knowing the effort put into each of them. I’ve seen cheating, plagiarism, and loafing in both environments — it’s usually only slightly more obvious in person. I’ve built stronger relationships with some online profs than I have with their in-person counterparts. I’ve seen the diversity that online brings to the table by providing access to people who otherwise couldn’t attend college due to travel, work commitments, or other reasons.
    I suppose the real issue is, how do you define “value” in the first place? And whose perspective do you care about?

    • Tom, thanks for your input. I appreciate it. I definitely agree that you get out of online what you put into it. As a matter of fact, my main issue is with online freshman classes. They need the coaching (the nudge or the pat on the back), the personal touch, and the togetherness with their fellows that more naturally takes place in a face-to-face context.

  3. There needs to be a balance. I am still a fan of the college/university experience–living amongst your peers, the socializing, the campus jobs, clubs, sport, international exchange programs and more. I know it’s not for everybody, but an online course is never going to replace a seminar with a dynamic professor and a small group of students–the exchange, depth and learning in those situations is extraordinary. On the other hand, tech can offer less drudgery and more targeted learning with greater quantity and quality of resources–enhanced learning. The right balance is best, and that will differ from learner to learner.

    • Thanks for commenting Maureen. We agree that the seminar class with a dynamic professor and a small group of students is the ultimate. The rest of it we can discuss over a cup of coffee. : )

  4. “Unmediated humanity.” I love that. (I mean to say I love the phrase, and that’s because I love the experience of unmediated humanity.)

  5. No one should be able to effectively argue that there is not something more that is required to communicate, especially personal details of one’s life, face to face. I find it much easier to express myself online than face to face in many situations. I have to seek out opportunities these days to practice doing it. I can edit my comments when “talking” online, instead of inserting foot in mouth and cringing all the way home. Anecdotally I have noted that when I am talking openly and sometimes intimately with people they do not quite know HOW to respond, especially when it involves the subjects of religion and politics. I suppose that is the reason for not talking about those subjects in which case having F2F communication in the classroom might not provide a remedy. Perhaps we need to get more comfortable in our skin and learn how to talk and debate F2F concerning the things of life that are of the most consequence.

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