The “vivid nightmare” of online education – NOT.

In this recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins describes online education train as bearing down on him in a destructive path. What he means by online education is unclear – MOOCs, online classes, technology in the classroom ? It all gets a swipe. Not all of Jenkins’ points are misplaced, and his careful identification of the various constituencies involved in the defense and criticism of online education is worth keeping at hand, but I think he is wrong in many of his claims.

At the heart of Jenkins’ fears about online education is the claim that 1) it provides a lesser quality of learning, and that 2) it is a cynical profit-making project.

The assumption that online teaching does not lead students to think critically, that it cannot teach complex concepts and that it is a form of passive learning only serves to highlight the fact the Jenkins, and many critics of online education, have not taken an online class. It also suggests they haven’t sat in a lecture class with 80 classmates (the average History lecture class size at my campus). There are few things that are more passive for the student than a lecture delivered from a dais with the lights dimmed to accomodate the overhead projector.

There are ineffectual teachers in the traditional classroom and in the virtual classroom – the delivery system does not control for quality.  But hybrid pedagogy can in fact be significantly more interactive and engaging that traditional large lecture classes, and the community-building that happens among learners provides a hint at how much and what they are learning. Instruction does not equate learning, as this excellent article and experiment demonstrate – it is engagement that leads to learning.

The second main point of Jenkins’ article, namely that there is a cynical, nefarious, destructive profit motive behind university administration, is problematic because money and budgets are a real challenge for universities. University administrators and politicians, who are by definition not instructors, have been led to believe that online instruction, because it is scalable, can be more productive than traditional education.

What they are already realizing is that you actually can’t have quality instruction without significant capital outlays – and not just in learning platforms and training, but servers and bandwidth. As Steve Anderson says in his latest blogpost – the cost-savings of online ed have not materialized, while the development of online classes have already demanded significant new investments.

Online education is not a train hurtling inexorably towards us (and by the way, what a terrible analogy on a day when real railroad accidents really did become a vivid nightmare in Spain). Online education is not the panacea to all of higher education’s problems, but could we please start discussing the merits of the pedagogy separately from the delivery system?

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