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Connecting the Connected: The Appeal of Online Education

Online education has big appeal … but is the premise flawed?

By Don Arnoldy, Contributing Writer

Online course delivery is very attractive for a number of reasons. It offers several benefits to both schools and students. Schools can offer classes without the overhead of real estate costs while serving a more geographically diverse student population. Class sizes are no longer limited by how many seats one can put in a room, and students can do their schoolwork at the time and place of their choosing.

The thinking is simple and logical. In college classes, students listen to lectures, do some assigned outside reading, and take tests or write papers. So, why not find the best lecturer you can, record that person and put the lectures online for every student to listen to? Websites can also provide convenient links to digital versions of the assigned readings, collect digital versions of assigned papers, and be an engine for delivering and scoring tests. Sure, you still need classrooms for “skills” and “lab” components, but those aren’t as important as the lecture element. Students today are all digital natives anyway; just look at how much time they already spend online. They like it. Everybody seems to win – but is the premise flawed?

In the first decade of the 20th century, Dr. Charles Eliot, then president of Harvard University, proclaimed that "the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a three-foot shelf." By the time he had edited the collection, which became known as The Harvard Classics and Collier & Sons had published it, it took up a five-foot shelf. However, people did not stop attending colleges to stay home and read these books, and, as far as I know, no one has been granted an accredited degree for merely having done so.

As I was entering college in the 1970s, telecourses were the hot new thing. One could watch the lectures on TV in the comfort of one's home, and only had to go to the campus to take exams. Again, people did not stop going to campuses in favor of telecourses. Why not?

Learning is, at its core, a social activity. The learning community that develops in a well-run classroom cannot be replaced by books, TV or interactive Web applications. Teaching is not telling, and learning is not remembering. If we make the mistake of thinking of what we do in our classrooms as simply knowledge transfer, we lose a vital component.

Anthony Cody, in a recent blog post, explained, “Great teachers know their students and make every effort to communicate on a personal level with them as individuals. They communicate not just information, but also concern, compassion and encouragement. They find ways to build students' confidence in their own abilities. They can intuit confusion in the room, and stop to explain or provide more context. They can draw students into active discussions, building on prior experiences and understanding. None of this is possible when those students watch a recorded lesson.”

This is not to say that there is no role for online delivery of instruction – it can be a valuable tool in the proper context. But we must understand the context.

In their book Building Online Learning Communities, Palloff and Pratt assert, “Key to the learning process are the interactions among students themselves, the interactions between faculty and students, [and] the collaboration in learning that results from these interactions.”

Yet Inside Higher Ed's recent “Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology” shows that, of instructors who've taught online, the percentage who believe the quality of online courses matches or exceeds face-to-face for various aspect of course delivery is as follows:

• Grading and communicating about grading: 79 percent
• Communication with the college about logistics and other issues: 68 percent
• Ability to deliver necessary content to meet learning objectives: 64 percent
• Ability to answer student questions: 55 percent
• Interaction with students outside class: 48 percent
• Ability to reach "at risk" students: 33 percent
• Interaction with students during class: 29 percent

Of the seven listed aspects, the four lowest were those that concerned faculty/student interaction.

Student completion rates for online courses continue to be substantially lower than for on-ground courses, and we know the student-teacher relationship is one of the primary factors in student persistence.

If building a community – interacting with students and building relationship with and among them – is important, can that be done in an online setting? Absolutely! People have been successfully building online communities since the days of The Well and CompuServe back in the 1980s. It takes work because it’s harder than forming relationships in a face-to-face environment.

Additionally, the tools themselves need work. Most LMSs (Learning Management Systems), as the IHE survey reflects, are good at content delivery: posting assignments, video lectures and multimedia tutorials. They also perform well with grade management: collecting and time-stamping assignments, administration and scoring of multiple-choice tests, and calculating cumulative grades. The social parts – the parts that help build community – generally seem to be afterthoughts. Discussion boards, live chat areas and private messaging are all feature-poor compared to what’s available in the general market.

Once one abandons the transmission-of-knowledge paradigm, scalability of instruction becomes a factor. It is not “just the same” in a class of 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000. The amount of time and effort required of an instructor will scale directly with the size of the class. Online classes require more work by the instructor, not less. Online classes may be freed from the constraints of classroom size, but there is still a limit on how high the student-teacher ratio can get before student engagement is sacrificed. Establishing a collaborative learning environment and making use of team- and project-based learning can help to mitigate some of the increased demand on the instructor.

Threaded discussions are a crucial part of creating a collaborative learning environment. But, to do this, discussion board postings should not be treated as graded mini-essays. Students must feel free to post hypotheses, questions and tentative solutions to problems without fear of being “marked down.” Discussion boards need to be treated like classroom discussions rather than small writing assignments. There also needs to be an “off topic” area, where conversations not specifically related to the course assignments can be held. This helps to cement the social cohesion of the group and strengthens the students’ social presence.

Live chat has some disadvantages, especially with a geographically-diverse student population, when compared to discussion boards. Chief among these is that all the participants must be online at the same time. However, it is a good mechanism for instructor “office hours.” The immediacy of the interaction also makes live chat useful for group interaction in team- or project-based activities. Video conferencing tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts can further enhance student interaction, but require a higher level of technology.

Online learning platforms are at their best when they facilitate the interaction among faculty and students, at their worst when they try to replace it.

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