I have to disagree strenuously with Mark Edmundson’s overly casual dismissal of online education in his recent New York Times op-ed piece, “The Trouble with Online Education” (July 19, 2012). The trouble is that Edmundson doesn’t understand online education, or perhaps hasn’t much practical experience with it. Maybe he just needs a digital strawman to make his case for teaching. In any case he is wrong about it.
What Edmundson castigates is a certain kind of online learning, the monologic kind that is really no more than a version of that old audio and videotape series “The Great Courses” (which, btw, is still being sold). Agreed, that approach to online learning is not very effective. Even if we call it a “college course,” even if we start assigning it college credit, that kind of online package is no more than a textbook really — granted, a multimodal textbook with a video component to it.
I will agree with Edmundson on the need for dialogue in teaching: “Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates.” But who says we can’t have dialogue in an online course? Again, Edmundson has a limited view of online education; he is committing the old argumentative fallacy of substituting “some” for “all.” Yes, some online courses are the “pre-filmed” kind, the Great Lectures on YouTube variety. (In fact you can find a lot of great lectures on YouTube.) This is not be the model we ought to be embracing for online education. Packaged online materials, YouTube lectures, sure, these tools can certainly assist online education — textbooks can help, after all — but let’s not imagine that model as the entirety of online education. Let’s be careful not to confuse the part (a textbook, a lecture) with the whole (a college course). That part/whole confusion is rampant out there — and Edmundson contributes to the confusion.
So what’s needed? A truly complete course would have a significant dialogic component, to use Edmundson’s term — or, the term I would prefer, interactive. And there are all kinds of digital tools, social media tools, that promote dialogism, interaction, engagement, the give-and-take between instructor and student. In our online writing courses at Miami University we use discussion boards for asynchronous discussion. We use video chat spaces such as Google Hangout for synchronous, real-time discussion. We distribute and share and respond to each others’ documents via old technologies (email), course management systems (e.g., Sakai), and new technologies (e.g., Google Dropbox). The students are writing frequently in online spaces; the instructor is there responding, advising, evaluating; students reply to and comment on their classmates’ writing — there is frequent interaction and exchange, peer review and collaboration.
What really makes learning happen, and particularly for a writing course, is the meeting of minds — between student and instructor, between student and students. Of course to succeed this model requires the engaged, committed presence of the teacher. You can’t just slap a video lecture online and then go home. You have to be present, fully engaged with your students. And that kind of engagement takes time and effort and expertise. Get over the idea that online education can be done cheaply, or outsourced, or pre-packaged. Not if you want it done well.
Let’s not dismiss online education too readily. If we use the full array of social media at our disposal and if we are willing to commit resources and energy to the effort, we can create online courses every bit as good as our face-to-face courses, every bit as dialogic and interactive, every bit as Socratic as, well, Socrates. And maybe even better. Depends how it’s done.