The Strengths of Online Learning?

I admit that I was strongly biased against online learning when I first approached this topic, but most of the research I encountered spoke overwhelmingly in support of the concept. I finally found a site, Illinois Online Network, which even though its subtitle, “Supporting Online Education Throughout the World,” clearly stakes out its position, actually offers an unbiased look at the pros and cons of online higher education. So, for today, the strengths.

The Illinois Online network outlines several advantages to online learning: It’s not dependent on the student’s proximity to the “school,” and it makes possible “asynchronous learning,” the industry term for a learning environment in which the student can do his or her assignments (whatever they might be: discussion posts, quizzes, even papers) at a time of day that suits them. The regimentation of the traditional university simply disappears.

But Illinois Online also lists a number of other positive features which I find myself questioning. Among them:

Synergy. The online format allows for a high level of dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves. Resources and ideas are shared, and continuous synergy will be generated through the learning process as each individual contributes to the course discussions and comments on the work of others.”

High Quality Dialog. Within an online asynchronous discussion structure, the learner is able to carefully reflect on each comment from others before responding or moving on to the next item. This structure allows students time to articulate responses with much more depth and forethought than in a traditional face-to-face discussion situation where the participant must analyze the comment of another on the spot and formulate a response or otherwise loose the chance to contribute to the discussion.”

And “Creative Teaching. The literature of adult education supports the use of interactive learning environments as contributing to self-direction and critical thinking. Some educators have made great strides in applying these concepts to their onground teaching. However, many classes still exist which are based on boring lectures and rote memorization of material. The nature of the semi-autonomous and self-directed world of the Virtual Classroom makes innovative and creative approaches to instruction even more important. In the online environment, the facilitator and student collaborate to create a dynamic learning experience. The occasion of a shift in technology creates the hope that those who move into the new technology will also leave behind bad habits as they adopt this new paradigm of teaching. As educators redesign their course materials to fit the online format, they must reflect on their course objectives and teaching style and find that many of the qualities that make a successful online facilitator are also tremendously effective in the traditional classroom as well.”

I wonder about each of these. The notion that “synergy” is easier in an online classroom as opposed to an in-person classroom strikes me as hollow. What’s to prevent a dynamic interaction between students and instructors in an in-person setting? I just don’t see why this feature is specifically a strength of online classrooms.

“Quality Dialog”: Illinois Online seems bent on making careful reflection the be-all and end-all of student interaction, the notion that students need lots of time to reflect in private before responding their classmates comments (on discussion boards).  They imply a hierarchy between that kind of reflection and the value of learning to think on one’s feet. That’s bogus. Ask any litigator how important it is to think on one’s feet. That’s a skill that can only be learned in an in-person classroom. I don’t dispute the value of reflective, online responses, but should we move more and more toward online learning, something vital about the higher education experience will be lost.

Finally, “Creative Teaching.” An utter joke. The Online Network is simply ignoring the material circumstances of online teaching. The bare fact is that most online instructors are adjuncts. They teach primarily at community colleges and for-profit institutions where the teaching loads are extremely heavy. The vast amount of anecdotal and empirical evidence I have at my disposal suggests that adjuncts are horribly overworked and, therefore, unlikely to be doing any “creative teaching.” Instead, they’re barely hanging on. This could lead to an entirely different topic, but it would be simpler to read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, as well as his various articles on the topic. My point is that people teaching five or more courses a term simply aren’t going to be teaching creatively.

Next up: the cons of online learning (though I feel I’ve gotten ahead of myself).


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