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Another Look at the Weaknesses of Online Learning

The responses to my last post (both online and off), in which I questioned the supposed strengths of online learning, were so well informed and provocative that I think I have no choice but to return to that topic. The supporters of online learning are simply bringing me around to their way of thinking. They also have the advantage of having either taught or taken online courses, while I have only experienced a traditional college education, on both sides of the classroom.

Before I revisit the topic of online learning’s strengths, though, I thought it best to return to the excellent Web site Illinois Online Network, which outlines what it considers to be both the strengths and the weaknesses of online learning. That way I can present the entirety of the debate, and invite responses from the many scholars who have enlightened me so far

Here are some of the key weaknesses that the Illinois Online Network outlines, many of which, I have to say, I don’t find particularly alarming:

  1. Technology, specifically equity and accessibility to the technology required for online access, and the fact that students come to online courses with a wide range of computer literacy. I’m not sure either of these are big problems. Online learning has been expanding at a rapid rate for several years now, and the demand for online courses, especially at community colleges, now regularly outstrips the capacity for such schools to provide them. In other words, students by the hundreds of thousands aren’t worried about accessibility to the technology; they’re worried about access to the courses themselves, which in turn suggests that computer availability is not a major problem. As for degrees of computer literacy, several commenters made the point that some students are better suited for online learning than others. Certainly true, and students with low levels of computer literacy will simply opt for other modes of learning.
  2. The Students. The Network reports: “While an online method of education can be a highly effective alternative medium of education for the mature, self-disciplined student, it is an inappropriate learning environment for more dependent learners. Online asynchronous education gives students control over their learning experience, and allows for flexibility of study schedules for non traditional students; however, this places a greater responsibility on the student.” This “weakness,” it seems to me, can be turned on its head. As those of you who follow my blog know, I’m worried that, in our rush to be First in the World when it comes to college graduates, we’re admitting a great many unqualified students—for-profit universities, as Senator Tom Harkin’s hearings have shown, are the worst offenders. Why wouldn’t we want a form of college education that “places a greater responsibility” on the student? And what’s wrong with a larger cohort of mature, self-disciplined students, as opposed to new-minted high school graduates who attend college out of a dim sense of that it is expected of them? As “R117532” puts it in a deeply informed and thoughtful response to my last post—I’d urge you all to read it—in online courses, “mental attendance is higher. You can show up in a physical classroom and be somewhere else mentally. In an online classroom, you only show up via work product.” He goes on to add, “many of the criticisms of online courses go to this point inappropriately. They examine online courses with no or poor structure and conclude that the medium is to blame.”
  3. The Facilitator. The Network has this to say: “Successful on-ground instruction does not always translate to successful online instruction. If facilitators are not properly trained in online delivery and methodologies, the success of the online program will be compromised. An instructor must be able to communicate well in writing and in the language in which the course is offered. An online program will be weakened if its facilitators are not adequately prepared to function in the Virtual Classroom.” Well, let’s hope the facilitator can write!  But this is a good point. It takes different kinds of skills to facilitate different kinds of courses: the large lecture course, the small writing course, the graduate seminar. The same must hold true in the “delivery and methodologies” of online teaching. The Network raises the concern that not all online instructors are adequately prepared. I’ll leave this to those readers who have taught online: Were you adequately prepared for the virtual classroom, or did you have to figure a lot out on your own? “R117532” suggests he experienced a learning curve, but one that ultimately had a positive outcome: “While my lower division courses had a slightly higher dropout rate until I learned how to manage the classroom better, students always turned in better performance scores than did comparable students in physical classrooms.”
  4. Finally, The Administration and the Faculty. “Sometimes administration cannot see beyond the bottom line and look at online programs only as ways to increase revenues and are thus not committed to seeing online programs as a means of providing quality education to people who would otherwise not be able to access it. In such a case, an institution that is not aware of the importance of proper facilitator training, essential facilitator characteristics, and limitations of class size would not understand the impact that these elements can have on the success of an online program.” The profit motive in online learning is a big worry for me. I have yet to meet anyone who teaches exclusively online who is not also an adjunct. I worry that, at many institutions—community colleges and for-profit colleges in particular—these adjuncts, as they are everywhere, are overworked and thus lack not the motivation but the time to learn how to teach effectively online. I just don’t agree with “R117532” that for-profits are “an irrelevant distraction.” They’re growing too fast, they’re gobbling up a disproportionate amount of federal loans (which makes them something we all have to worry about), and while many—University of Phoenix and Kaplan, for example, have a lot of brick and mortar campuses, some of the other big ones—Walden University, Bridgepoint Education (currently ranked #13 among Investors Business Daily’s top stocks), operate exclusively online.

A lot of issues on the table.  I’m eager to hear from you.

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