Downside of Online Education Too Rarely Discussed

Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia says that online education was one of the of the main reasons for a rift between UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan and the school’s governing board that resulted in her dismissal, subsequent reinstatement, and a new conversation about digital education. What is unclear, however, is whether the potential of the new instructional medium was really worth the conflict that nearly destabilized one of the premier research institutions in America.

Writing in The New York Times, Edmundson argues that moving instruction online wouldn’t be in the long term interest of the school or its students. There are many positives to online education, and they get mentioned quite often in the frequent laudatory articles and blog posts about the new education paradigm. But there are just as many negatives that aren’t talked about nearly as often — and Edmundson says it’s is a shame, as resolving these issues could mean a big step forward in online education adoption.

One of the most powerful learning tools in a classroom is the relationship between teachers and students. Students learn from their professors, but professors also tailor their course plan to teach most effectively depending on the makeup of their classes. Edmundson explains that “teaching is a matter of dialogue.”

In the summer Shakespeare course I’m teaching now, I’m constantly working to figure out what my students are able to do and how they can develop. Can they grasp the contours of Shakespeare’s plots? If not, it’s worth adding a well-made film version of the next play to the syllabus. Is the language hard for them, line to line? Then we have to spend more time going over individual speeches word by word. Are they adept at understanding the plot and the language? Time to introduce them to the complexities of Shakespeare’s rendering of character.

To some degree, professors are actors. Few lecture by rote, and many make on the fly changes by reading their audience. Most effective instructors take data from quizzes and tests and homework and combine it with their understanding of the mood in the class itself, to deliver lectures that this particular group of students will find the most compelling.

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.

Online education, on the other hand, is often entirely a numbers game. The same lecture is viewed by the hundreds of thousands of people and takes no account of differences in understanding or circumstances. Though online education offers students flexibility on how and when to view a lecture, it offers professors no reciprocal flexibility to tailor their lectures to the unique abilities and interests of the students.

07 23, 2012
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