Recently, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times by Mark Edmundson touting “The Trouble with Online Education.” It just so happens that after nearly three decades of face-to-face classroom teaching (including at the college level) and a handful of years experimenting with “blended” courses to varying degrees, I have begun teaching a fully online course for the first time this Summer. So, naturally, the title of Professor Edmundson’s piece piqued my interest.
Despite his self-proclaimed limited experience with online teaching and learning (he mentions taking only one online course from Yale), Edmundson makes a number of valid points. First, he says we need to pay attention to and learn from our students. Amen to that. Next, he states, “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.” In other words, the give and take of improvisation on a theme provides an apt metaphor for the way a class can unfold in astounding and enlightening ways. Absolutely, I agree. The best classes create “genuine intellectual community,” Edmundson writes. Yes, yes, yes, I’m with you. Finally, Edmundson states in a lovely turn of phrase, “a real course creates intellectual joy.” Sure wish I had thought of that one.
In the end, I found myself thinking, “You know, we agree more than one might expect. These things should be true of ALL learning environments.”
But Edmundson and I diverge when he states, “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” Really? This is the conclusion we should all draw from taking one online course in which “there was nothing you could get…that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject?”
So, I’ve been mulling these points over for a few days, thinking about how best to respond. I could tell stories about lousy college classes that did none of the things Edmundson claims make higher education so unique in its ability to inspire learning. But we all have those stories, don’t we? I could describe the ways my online course provides the kind of learning space that nurtures all of the things that Edmundson claims it can’t do. But I’d rather not assume the position of the offended educator who shouts that she is the exception to the rule. I could acknowledge the wide range of effectiveness of online teaching, which does indeed include some courses like the one Edmundson describes, those that merely videotape a live classroom of a brilliant professor and post it online to share with the world. I actually agree that this is not the kind of course I would recommend to my low-income students who could benefit most from open access to the best educational institutions in the country. (On the other hand, I thought, it might be fun to “audit” such a course when I’m doing the dishes or walking the dog.)
Serendipitously, it wasn’t until I was waiting to pick up a carry-out dinner and listening to NYU media professor Clay Shirky on the TED Radio Hour’s episode, “The Power of Crowds” (I know, radio is so old-school…), that I figured out what I wanted to say. After a clip from Shirky’s 2009 TED Talk in which he listed the four hugely transformative innovations that have changed “the media landscape” (you know, the printing press, the telegraph and telephone, the ability to print sound and images, radio waves), host Alison Stewart asked Shirky why the telephone chat room (or conference call, I presume) hadn’t significantly altered media – and thus the way we communicate –in the way the Internet has transformed how we congregate and share ideas. Patience, please, I’ll make the connection to online education in a bit.
Shirky responded, first, “Real time doesn’t scale.” Thus, the number of people who can benefit from a live, synchronous conversation via phone is limited. Next, he explained how “phone conversations can’t be stored, searched, or forwarded.” Hence, Internet conversations have the potential for extending conversations across time and space in a seemingly infinite way. “Distance doesn’t cost money on the Internet” was Shirky’s next point. The Internet, as opposed to telephone conversations that congregate a fixed number of people in a brief span of time, can connect participants globally at very little cost.
Bingo. Substitute face-to-face classrooms with telephone conversations and online education with Internet. Thank you, Clay Shirky.
Real Time Doesn’t Scale
Sitting at the feet of the academic gods, which is what the college or university classroom claims to provide for the uneducated, doubtless has inspired – and continues to inspire – many of us. But the fact is that those moments are few and far between even for those who can attend college. I can count the number of times I felt the magic of learning from the masters, well, on one hand. And such opportunities remain non-existent for those who cannot scrounge the funds to acquire such an elite education. Thus, the number of people who can actually benefit from attending Professor Edmundson’s courses at the University of Virginia is quite limited. But the number who might learn from an “open source” environment of courses designed for Internet engagement – now that’s another story.
Face-to-face Courses Can’t Be Stored, Searched, or Forwarded
You blink, become distracted by your neighbor’s Facebook posts, or tune out for a moment and miss a few beats of taking notes – and the magic of that classroom moment is gone. Certainly such moments may move us, even transform us, if they speak to us at the right time in our lives. But in a face-to-face classroom, how can we review the way the jazz of the conversation evolved, revisit an astute comment made by a classmate that didn’t quite gel for us when it was first shared, or come back to it years later to gain a deeper understanding than we were capable of initially? Online learning, which can be stored, searched, and forwarded with any number of useful tools for annotating and sharing, allows the jazz improv of learning (and potential collaboration with any number of co-learners) to continue indefinitely.
Distance Doesn’t Cost Money
In my current online course, from my home office in Houston, Texas, I teach students from both U.S. coasts and three Asian countries. They all pay the same tuition and receive the same detailed feedback from me in response to each lesson they produce. No one has to acquire a travel visa or get on a plane to attend. They all have my phone number (and Skype address) and know they can reach me via email or in person during Office Hours, which is more than I can say for a lot of the professors I worked with in college.
Similarly, I have colleagues who have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses) with the movers and shakers of their disciplines. These courses have gathered together – for free – some of the best thinkers about education in the world. The discussions there have been rich and powerful. More importantly, they could not have happened without the Internet to bring the participants together in online spaces.
How often can we ordinary folk actually sit in on conversations between the greatest thinkers in our university disciplines? How often do we have the opportunity to actually add our two cents?
Actually, We Still Agree
I would be foolish to claim that face-to-face courses with brilliant professors and live jazz performances by great musicians do not create a dazzling, one-of-a kind experience. Likewise, we should acknowledge that online education has the power to do things that face-to-face classes cannot. If institutions of higher learning do little more than videotape the lectures of college professors to share online, they are only archiving their best live performances as so many YouTube posts, not creating the kind of rich learning communities that the Internet can encourage. (And frankly, I’d rather watch a TED talk… or read a book.)
None of us has the patience for “one-size-fits-all learning” anymore – online or otherwise. What we want is “intellectual joy.” Let us all, then, come together and make the most of both worlds.