The Trouble with “The Trouble with Online Education”

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, has an op-ed in today’s NY Times called The Trouble with Online Education. I can’t pass up the opportunity to make a quick critique, as he makes a critical error in his piece – assuming that the employment of a particular pedagogy or method of content delivery is always the same and has the same results:

“the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. …they deploy something tantamount to artistry.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

Really, Professor Edmundson? My experience in college was that the large lectures were awful and attendance was low because the notes were available elsewhere. Sure, Michael Sandel can keep an audience, and there’s a line out the door for his class, but let’s face it, few lecturers are Michael Sandel. Maybe you are, but don’t make the mistake that anyone else is that good. Large lecture is more often than not the one-size-fits-all you claim all online education is.

I’ve been teaching online for the last two school years, and my experience is not that class is a monologue. Rather, I communicate individually with my students as much or more than I do in my brick-and-mortar classes. We engage in conversation about course content and discuss their progress as learners. To say all online learning looks like a massive cookie-cutter lecture is wrong.

We’re going to have to endure op-eds like this for awhile, as fearful and self-important university professors tell us the way they’ve always done things is superior to anything else. From what I can tell, these reactions are typical when an industry is being disrupted by a new technology. Some of the criticisms of online education will be spot-on, but many will make assumptions that demonstrate a lack of understanding. And some of the assertions will be over the top:

“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.” [emphasis added]

Do some research about online learning, Professor Edmundson, I think you’ll find lots of people expressing joy about their experiences.

You can start with my online students’ reflection blog if you like.

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Comments
  1. Ron    

    Mike,
    I totally agree. Not only does interaction and communication increase with online learning but it increases greatly with blended learning as well. In fact, the overall classroom experience and student engagement are greatly enhanced through online education and communication. They only people I can think that would disagree would be those who have never had first hand experience using online education with students.

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Mike Gwaltney