The Internet’s Not Just for Porn: The Pros and Cons of Online Education

But can online education ever be education of the very best sort?

It’s here that the notion of students teaching teachers is illuminating. As a friend and fellow professor said to me: “You don’t just teach students, you have to learn ’em too.” It took a minute — it sounded like he was channeling Huck Finn — but I figured it out.

Mark Edmundson, UVA English Professor in the New York Times, July 19, 2012

When Mark Edmundson penned his critique of online education, it came on the heels of a highly contentious dispute at the University of Virginia in which its Board of Visitors dismissed and then reinstated president Teresa A. Sullivan, largely over what it perceived as insufficient progress regarding the university’s expansion into online courses. With Harvard, Yale, and M.I.T. in the mix, the board believed UVA, one of the nation’s flagship public institutions, to be falling behind. In July, the university joined Harvard, Yale, and others working with the company Coursera to establish an online presence.

Obviously, as numerous observers have pointed out, online college classes have been around for some time. The University of Phoenix booted up its servers in 1998, and a flood of for-profit online colleges followed. Many have questioned the efficacy of these institutions.  Recent controversies over for-profit universities preying on veterans – consuming their G.I. benefits without delivering a quality or marketable education – and encouraging debilitating student debt serve as two prominent examples. However, as David Brooks noted in May, when august institutions like M.I.T., Yale, and now UVA entered the discussion, a sudden legitimacy became attached to these efforts and discussions regarding online education seemed to take on a new meaning. “What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web,” argued Brooks.

Stanford Profs and Coursera founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller

Right now, one would have to agree with Brooks. Coursera, founded by two Stanford professors, now organizes free online classes for a handful of the most elite public and private institutions in America.  Lately, it feels like NPR does a piece on the company every other week. With the rising costs of higher education, increasing student loan debt, and a struggling economy, online education provides a cheaper, more cost efficient means to build skills and knowledge. For those with jobs and families, it delivers the flexibility necessary to pursue higher education even with these responsibilities. Proponents argue student performance aligns roughly with classroom equivalents and that online classes make tailoring courses to student abilities easier.  Apart from making knowledge cheap and globally accessible, online education “compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies,” Brooks notes. “In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. One of Edmundson’s primary arguments centered on teacher-student interaction, notably the ability of professors to pick up on student strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are,” wrote Edmundson. “We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow.”  Reading your audience, whether in a 200 seat lecture hall or ten person seminar, remained an integral skill; online classes made this difficult, he asserted.  For Edmundson, one of the true values of brick and mortar classes and the university itself lay in the creation of “intellectual communities,” as students physically run into each other on campus and, if the class is interesting, discuss it. In contrast, Edmundson described online instruction as an endless monologue without any real dialogue. Even the most active instructor, lacked the “immediacy of contact”; without collaboration between students and teachers, the results will remain wanting.

If letters to the editor are any indication, Edmundson touched on some real flash points in American higher education. Several readers praised Edmundson for highlighting the importance of an educational community, and one noted that it was even more practical than that.  Adam Chandler, a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School, boiled it down to one simple fact: getting students in the classroom was the key. “[A]s in life,” Chandler said, “80 percent of education is showing up, in person.” Not everyone agreed. Jane Rosecrans, a junior college professor in Virginia, contended that online classes encouraged greater participation from students who might be too intimidated to raise their hand in class. Others cited the fact that rising education costs made online learning a necessity, regardless of quality control. “Until the issue of runaway costs for higher education is addressed,” wrote Judith Levin, “students from poor and middle-class families, intent on getting a college education, will increasingly gravitate to these free, accredited Internet courses.”

The physical university, a relic of the past?

The truth of online learning’s value lay somewhere between Brooks’s sometimes grating optimism and Edmundson’s occasionally dour view of internet instruction. Edmundson gets many critiques of online classes right. Undoubtedly, the disembodied nature of distance learning makes the kind of “intellectual communities” Edmundson rightly values a tougher feat and face to face contact, notably in terms of discussion, will probably always be better than even the most detailed of emails.

I have taught an online course for the University Colorado Denver for nearly two years.  Unlike Coursera, which is still in its beta stage and funded at the moment by venture capital, UCD’s ecollege functions as a means for students to take established UCD courses that lack the physical space to accommodate demand or as a way to aid working students or those with families.  As an urban university, UCD’s student population exhibits a fair amount of diversity – I have had students of all races, ages, and backgrounds to varying degrees – but must function in the fixed space of Denver.

The class, The World at War, 1914 – 1945, actually stretches from 1898 to 1964 and stresses the transnational nature of WWI and WWII.  In order to tell this story the class focuses on several topics: imperialism, the fall of empires, the rise of nation states and human rights regimes, and the intersection of war with factors like race, class, and gender on wartime populations. Each week students have an 8-15 page overview which tries to establish some historical context for that week’s subject and tells students what to look for in the readings. Weekly slideshows are also provided as a second resource.  For each, lectures are recorded. In general, lectures are aimed at those students who would like more detail and explanation.  While students must at least read the weekly overview and view the power point, these podcasted lectures are suggested but not mandatory.  Each week students must complete a writing assignment ranging from 150 words to 600 (though the majority of assignments ask for a 250 word response to a prompt).  Often students are required to post a response in a chat forum, then comment on two other student posts.   The idea here is to encourage the intellectual community that Edmundson advocates. For every writing assignment, I write 100-300 words in response, citing the strengths and weaknesses of each post. Likewise, this is meant to both aid students in writing stronger essays but also to establish some kind of weekly dialogue with individual students. Class size ranges from 35 to 54 people.

Here’s the thing: no matter how much I write in emails to students or in their weekly evaluations, it will never equal a five minute conversation that one might have in office hours.  In this way, Edmundson makes a strong argument; the give and take, back and forth of academic debate feel and operate differently when moderated by the clicks and whirs of servers and all pervasive wi-fi signals. The wrong turn of phrase in an email or even an unspotted typo can radically change the tone or meaning of communication.  But even more simply, banging out a nuanced, insightful email to a student just takes longer and requires greater attention then a conversation and in all likelihood conveys less information.

Yet, Edmundson also accords online classes too little credit. I’ve also lectured at UCSD to over 180 students. Though a handful of students regularly visited office hours, most did not.  These kind of large classes, even in a bricks and mortar setting, can lack the kind of connections and interactions Edmundson discusses. Though the school produces student evaluations at the end of the semester, the instructor’s most basic link to students occurs in three ways: during lecture, the aforementioned office hours, and through the insights of TAs. While I lack all three of these things in my distance learning course, UCD does provide student evaluations to instructors within weeks of the first class. Granted, some student complaints are griping about getting a B rather than a B+ on an assignment, but one can sense when changes need to be made. In consecutive years, I have adjusted or changed readings after students complained about assignments from the earlier weeks. I’ve added lectures for overviews and slideshows that can be downloaded to smart phones so that students can listen to them in their cars, working out, or while caring for their children. I’ve shortened some of the writing assignments, requiring shorter posts but more student interaction via comments, to accommodate those students with jobs and families. None of this has cost the course anything in terms of depth or knowledge, but it has helped it remain attuned to student concerns. One could argue that the midterm survey might even be more effective in gauging student progress and ability, if only because how often do undergraduates truly express their opinions regarding the class to the professor face to face? The aforementioned Jane Rosencrans pointed this out in her letter: “The lack of spatial proximity gives more students the ‘courage’ to engage me directly.” The survey provides an anonymous means to let the instructor know what’s working for some students and what’s not.

While you do get the occasional “this class is shit” response, none too useful at midterm or at the class’ conclusion really, most students tend to provide useful feedback. More generally, the vast majority of students take the class seriously and treat it much like they would a bricks and mortar course. However, I would be remiss not to note that on more than one occasion the comment “it’s a lot of work for an online class” has been made.  This always induces some head scratching on my part; one, because though the required reading is substantial it’s hardly excessive: less than 80 pages total a week (and remember there are no hour long lectures to attend so reading time basically equals the amount of time one would spend sitting listening to one’s professor in a physical classroom). Second, why would anyone want to devalue the product they’ve purchased? Shouldn’t one expect their online course to be as instructive and demanding as a more traditional one? Does this hint at a segment of America’s student population that sees online learning as cheap, easy, and less demanding?

When students enrolled in online learning express this view, it makes one wonder how others see the value of online instruction.  Brooks seems to think the shift toward internet is inevitable. Just as the newspaper and magazine business underwent tough but transformative times over the last decade and a half, so too will the Web permanently alter education. According to Brooks, it might be messy at first but in the end good education will rise to the top: “The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you’re seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.”

Cheating here, cheating there, cheating everywhere!

In the end, online education has a future, but I believe it will remain a valuable but supplemental tool for higher education. After all, for all the enthusiasm of M.I.T. and others in creating online courses, it’s not like they want to undermine their physical plant.  Right now, Coursera does not issue diplomas but certificates of completion.  Moreover, security issues remain a problem: how do universities police the inevitable fraudulent student, the one who pays someone else to complete a course for him or herself? We have seen this in traditional high schools and colleges (even elite institutions like Harvard and NYC’s Stuyvesant High School), so how do we prevent this in a medium  known for frequent duplicity and fraud? (Check your Hotmail or Gmail spam: how many faceless emails sit there asking for help in recovering “your inheritance”?)  Math sets, econ proofs, multiple choice quizzes are one thing, but how do you conduct a college or graduate level poetry class? Brooks is right, the potential for online learning seems ready to explode, but as Edmundson asks, just what will it mean for the kind of education American universities promote in the 21st century? Remember, “You don’t just teach students, you have to learn ’em too.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: