The Problem with Online Education?

From Mark Edmundson:

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.

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, 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.

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

Something similar applies even to larger courses. We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

His proposal is this:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn’t great and could never have been. There were Yale students on hand for the filming, but the class seemed addressed to no one in particular. It had an anonymous quality. In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

"I've been wondering if the vision of the church isn't simply Jesus. If vision means ..."

Pastor As Midwife (Mike Glenn)
"Thank you Betty for your stand and willingness to share the difficulties you have faced, ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"I agree with Scot's thoughts, and I think they are stories not just worth telling, ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"Eric, I did call attention to it at the time."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I could not agree with this more. That sensing of the room, feeling the group’s energy and taking the intellectual and emotional pulse of the class is so vital to learning and relationship. Thank you for this post. It reminds me of the subject the author teaches. Shakespeare is meant to be heard, seen and experienced as embodied literature. The best learning demands the same type of immediacy and intimacy. Just reading the text doesn’t cut it; nor does learning and/or teaching on-line.

  • MatthewS

    One of the things you lose is rabbit trails. I still remember some of the rabbit trails different profs went down in the middle of class, sometimes related to the subject and sometimes not related at all.

    Something I like about online communication is it can help you weight the merit of the idea itself, apart from the person sharing. If the person is popular or unpopular, attractive or unattractive, has a nice tone of voice or speaks in a grating way… online communication can help get you to the idea itself.

    But I fear that strength is a net weakness in the end, I think. You ask a probing question and the prof answers – this can happen online or face to face. But face to face you see pain or amusement in the prof’s face, you see their eyes tear up with pain or dance with sinister pleasure as they plot to catch you in a mistake…

    And yet – gold is great when you can get it but if it’s out of reach, silver will often do. If the face to face class is awesome and life-changing but meets at a time when non-traditional students are unable to meet, that class can be effectively out of reach. Put it online, interact with it meaningfully and require the students to interact with each other and the text and assignments, it might not be face to face gold but it might be the silver that will do.

  • Chad

    From my perspective, this is not a problem inherent in online education, but rather inherent in certain types of educational design. There has to be a high degree of intentionality on the part of the course designer and the instructor/facilitator to create student-to-student and faculty-to-student engagement points in the class. As one who has taught online for nearly a decade, I have found that if the course is designed well, there is actually a higher degree of interactivity among the class than in a residential setting since students who often would not participate in an in-class discussion feel more free to interject their own thoughts in an online discussion. The design of the course and the role of the instructor are the keys to making online education work well.

  • My experience in the college classroom confirms all of this. But I wonder how much I am limited by my experience. I never took an online class, for obvious reasons of my extremely advanced age, and I have not taught a fully online class. Are there means of “reading” a class through online technology that I haven’t mastered? Could I learn them? Will others learn them as naturally and organically as I learned to read an in-person class (no one ever taught me how to read a class: I learned by observing others and then practicing)?

    We may be setting up a straw man if we compare a well-delivered traditional class to a poorly designed online class. It’s just as unfair as, say, comparing a lecture course of 3000 at a big state university to a well-designed online course with lots of interaction between an instructor and a much smaller group of students.

  • Dave

    This is SO true and I agree with his assessment completely…however, I would add a caveat..I have recently been involved in a “missions” endeavor where I am teaching bible classes in Haiti…BUT…we do it “live” via Skype technology (they are all together at one location…I am at another with my image projected on a large screen in their classroom) which allows for reading the students, “rabbit trails,” etc…

    I still miss some vocal inflection and emotion since I don’t speak French (Creole) well and they do not yet speak fluent English…BUT…with today’s technology there is really no reason why we should not be making larger strides in “distance” teaching/learning…the problem may be that it takes a larger commitment from the teacher…and I am not sure the educational system has prepared or pushed for this type of distance learning as opposed to “head-in-the-box” pre-prepared (canned) distance learning.

  • This is why cohort models are needed and real face-to-face interaction is necessary. Real life meet ups and regular meetings via Google + or Skype make the work personal and truly interactive.

    When we remove those elements, learning becomes an exercise in Gnosticism.

  • RxCowboy

    The mindset here appears to be “teachers teach” with a focus on passive learning. When we get past that archaic mindset and focus on “learners learn” with student-centered, active learning, then it doesn’t really matter where the teacher and the student are geographically. The experience of sitting in a classroom with students who are asleep or playing on Facebook isn’t an experience necessary to learning. In fact, it should be done away with.

  • I have taken more than a dozen seminary classes (Anglican School of Ministry in Little Rock) online, or by teleconference (audio only). Most were by WebEx, which allows the instructor to speak directly with the students, see their faces, be seen, and post visuals aids on the “whiteboard.” Students can also make presentations using the “whiteboard.” Since it is “live,” there is a sense of collaboration and connectedness. The “rabbit trails” are important and that happens regularly. I also teach a number of classes at the “continuing education” level for lay people and catechists and also a course on Academic Writing over the internet. My experience is that students feel very free to participate, although there are the typical moments of silence. I have noticed that it is actually easier to use a number of audio/visual aids online than in a “regular” classroom setting. If the teacher is properly prepared, these always seem to go smoother. I would never attempt some of these “extras” from online sessions in a classroom. There are some downsides. Students outside of cities and large towns often do not have good broadband service. This creates an obvious problem. Sometimes the “host” has technical slowdowns as well. Students who are not properly disciplined will have problems, but this does not seem to be much of a problem in the ministry setting. As to the mater of pre-recorded lectures, that has the obvious failing that was already described. We deliberately avoid that, although some instructors do prepare “mini-lectures” of 10-15 minutes as a bonus for the class. OK, I have a dog in this fight, but it seems fairly clear that online education has value.

  • Sue

    I have never taken a completely “online” course, but I have taken several hybrids; ones where most of the work is done online but then two or three days are spent together in the classroom. The hybrid classes have always included written discussion threads where students are required to interact with the material.

    One thing I’ve noticed with online hybrid classes such as these vs. traditional class formats is that it is easier to get to know all of the students in the class better. In a traditional class, there are always some voices that are heard more than others, and some that are never heard at all. In my experience, in an online discussion, more students’ voices contribute. Then when the class does meet together, the conversation flows fast and furious. I am still in contact with those classmates with whom I had extensive online conversations with; not so much with classmates in traditional classes.

  • I have had a desire all my adult life to complete my degree, but due to one hurdle or another, I was unable to. Now with a wife, five kids, and a full time job, I can’t hope to attend the university I wish to attend to complete a degree. Thankfully, however, I am in the process of completing my degree through online classes. It’s still very challenging, we do get interaction with the professor and other students, but I am able to do it in my own time. I thank God for this opportunity that i wouldn’t have otherwise!

  • KCHU

    I have had a very good experience with online classes. We never had a pre-recorded lecture to watch. There were assigned readings and guided discussion online. We had discussion with the same groups every week, a couple times a week. So we got to know each other pretty well, especially since we all were expected to contribute to the conversation every time.

    The role of the professor is not to lecture, but to assign readings/homework and discussion questions, give feedback, gauge the overall response, and move on to the next week, keeping in mind how the class responded to the last week.

    To be honest, I miss the lectures but the online format necessitates that I read more carefully and think through the reading more thoroughly to be able to engage with my classmates. I still prefer a normal lecture-based class, but I wanted to share that there are some online communities that are very different than what was described.

  • Matthew Y.

    I think it’s important to note that not all online courses are the same. Although there are some that focus on more of a lecture format – like the one from Yale that was mentioned – the online Master’s that I am receiving doesn’t have that aspect but rather is more of a communal learning environment.

  • I echo what Matthew Y said above – not all online courses (or degrees) are created equal. I spent a year at a “traditional” seminary where I sat in a classroom for a courses – not to mention the years of schooling I had prior to my master’s that was in the classroom. Then I transfered into an M.Div program that is offered via online courses and week long intensives (I did this for a number of reasons, one of them being that the distance program was less than half the cost of the other!). Comparing the two, I have little doubt that I have actually learned better in the distance program, and the online courses were a major part of that. Here’s a few reasons why:

    1. You can’t “fly under the radar” in an online course (at least a good online course). You are graded in part based on your contribution to the discussion, which requires you to carefully think through what you’re going to say since it’s published for good once you put it up on the message board. In a classroom, I can sit in the back and say nothing if I want.

    2. It encourages more interaction with classmates. In fact, that’s part of your grade. It’s impossible for me not to interact with my classmates on a meaningful level. In a classroom, I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to.

    3. There is some validity to the idea that the professor can’t “learn” the class as well in an online format. Though I’d suggest that one would be surprised at how much you can learn about people through continual interaction online. It’s sure surprised me. I’d say many of the things mentioned above that are assumed to not take place in online discussions (Rabbit trails, collaboration, etc) do in fact happen online. In fact, given the lack of time constraints in an ongoing thread as opposed to a 50 minute class, some of these elements are arguably more evident in a well led and designed online course.

    I’d put it this way: there are some subjects that are better taught in the classroom. However, there are many subjects that can be effectively taught online. If a professor or school is smart about it, they can leverage the advantages of online education and potentially make it a better learning experience than what would have been available in the classroom. To some extent, this has been my experience.

  • I think that eventually technology will make it possible to replicate a classroom learning experience to a high degree of accuracy, but I’m not sure that that will ever be the same as learning in a physical classroom together. At the same time, I’m also not sure that this is an inherently negative thing; if done well, it might be said that both types of ‘classroom’ are each good in its own way, and each serve different purposes, as the purposes and needs for education are themselves continuing to shift and change.

  • Here is a critical response to the article that is worth taking into consideration:

    I commented there on the issue, so here I’ll just mention that it is important to consider the role of the body in education because that is what is most obviously lost in online settings. Toward that end here is a summary of Hubert Dreyfus’ view of skill and knowledge acquisition that provides a useful frame for discussing the pros and cons of online education:

  • maggie

    The people I have heard poo poo online education have never taken a course on line. They don’t fully know what they are talking about.

    I am forever thankful for the Exl program at Asbury Theological Seminary.

  • patrick

    I am not sure that everything has to be “of the very best sort.” It seems to me that second best if often adequate. Indeed, second best might be preferable when secondary issues are considered: money, relocation, family.

    Must education be “of the very best sort,” to the neglect of other factors?

  • I don’t deny that there’s a place for online education, especially in Christian universities and seminaries. For several years I benefited from the flexibility these programs provide. But as soon as I could get all my ducks in a row, through a great deal of sacrifice, I quit my job, left my home state and moved across the country to attend seminary in person.

    Thank God for the schools who make online resources available to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them – it’s akin to mission work in this respect. The thing that worries me is all the talk that makes online ed out to be just as good or better than face-to-face learning. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if online proponents were as candid as Matthew S is above with his comments about gold and silver. If they would just come right out and say, “Look, we know online is not as good as the real deal, but _________ (insert REAL reason the school is pushing online ed). From an administrative standpoint, the only reason online ed is being pushed so hard is money – plain and simple. Don’t fool yourself, this is NOT about pedagogy or what’s best for the student. And from the student’s perspective, the biggest reason online education is being consumed is convenience.

    Money and convenience – a great combination for building fast food chains and Walmart SuperCenters, but a recipe for disaster in education. Again, there are certainly extenuating circumstances that warrant choosing convenience and low-cost alternatives. It’s better to beam good teaching via satellite to small churches in remote parts of the world than to let them languish without. But my concern is the able-bodied Joe Average who would rather “attend” a virtual church online in his underwear instead of being a part of one of the many churches within walking distance of his house.

    Though economic concerns are a reality that all schools must reckon with, there is a danger in one’s philosophy of education being controlled by money. And though students who didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in their mouth must make realistic compromises when it comes to educational options, ease and convenience make terrible guiding principles. But even the best students in the most optimum situation imaginable, when presented with the option of “phoning-in” their contribution, will often take the easier route.

    My point is that there are two sides to this problem. Schools need to realize they have a responsibility to offer students what they NEED, not just what they want. And students must start taking responsibility for their own education regardless of what junk food options are paraded by.

  • Randy Bronson

    This article discusses online “education.” I suppose the author means to discuss online “college” education. I’ve taught high school in the classroom and I’ve taught online. The comments in this article do not relate AT ALL to the online high school experience. In the classroom I spoke with about 2% of the parents. Online, it’s 100%. In the classroom, if you get sick you stay home, drop out and get left behind. In my class, i work with you to help you complete. I’ve had students whose parents divorced while they were taking my class. Students who lost a parent. Students who took my class from a substance abuse treatment facility. Students who tried to commit suicide 2 weeks before they began my course and needed 5 hours of one-on-one instruction per week to finish the class and walk at graduation(to which they invited me!) To talk about “reading their audiences” ” artistry” “sensing the mood of a room” “a sort of pedagogical sixth sense” seems Pollyanish to me. You don’t need a sixth sense, you need a heart and a conscience.

  • The author parades many stereotypes of what an “online” teaching/learning experience is. Truth is – it is very diverse. I suggest a rewrite.

    Thank god for the comments – insightful and revealing.


  • I have just started teaching online and face-to-face classes at a community college. I really enjoy being with the students, but there’s no getting around it, online education is not only the future of education, it’s the here-and-now. The jury is still out for me, but one thing I wonder is: Who’s responsible for a student’s education anyway? Are you assuming the instructor lectures? I am very involved in what my students do, even when I have not met them, and respond to phone calls and texts as soon as I am able. An online course, like any other, is as good as the effort put in, by both instructor and students.