As a faculty member it is a kudo to get an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, one I've wanted on occasion. I've tried a couple of times by submitting an unsolicited piece. Perhaps its no surprise that I failed in getting a hit. So I applaud Professor Edmundson for getting his essay The Trouble With Online Learning into today's paper. (Though perhaps his piece was solicited.) Regardless, here I want to take issue with the arguments he made in that piece. I do think that online learning can be critiqued, but the way Professor Edmundson went about it is not helpful and some of the things he asserts are ill considered.
Let me begin with where I agree with Professor Edmundson. For that I think it useful to make an analogy between teaching and acting. (See page 3 of this piece, which I wrote in fall 2000 as the then chair of the oversight committee for the Center for Writing Studies. It was part of a failed effort to get other instructors on the committee and still other instructors who taught courses in the style of Writing Across the Curriculum to write similar pieces about themselves and to have them express their views regarding the importance of writing in learning.) Around the time of that piece I was a regular viewer of Inside The Actors Studio. Mainly the show provided hour long interviews with well known film actors, who would talk about their craft and their formative experiences with acting. Universally, these guests would report a strong preference for the theater over film. They'd rather act on stage because they felt close affinity to the audience that way and could modulate their delivery based on the audience reaction. Invariably you'd hear them say that while they'd do the same play night after night each performance was unique owing to the interaction with the audience Professor Edmundson feels the same way about the importance of interaction with his students while teaching and he believes that such interactions are an essential characteristic of excellence in instruction. I agree. Indeed some of my least favorite experiences with learning technology have been giving Webinars or live class sessions online, especially when there is little textual feedback from the audience through the chat window. It's like talking to a wall with no way of knowing whether the message is getting through.
With that observation let me begin my critique. When creating a blog post or a short video to be viewed in asynchronous manner I also don't know whether the audience gets it, unless I subsequently get comments from them. But I can review it to see if it satisfies my own standards, modify the creation if that first time through what I've made falls short on my personal metric, and eventually come up with something I'm okay with and perhaps even fond of. Thus, I treat my own satisfaction with the work as an alternative to the audience response I expect in teaching. In good part this is why I'm not a big fan of repurposing classroom capture for students not taking the class. Moreover, though seven years ago I was excited by this technology I'm much more cool to it now, even for those students in the class. I prefer the use of online micro-lectures integrated with a variety of other content so students have varied activities to do online. Professor Edmundson misses this distinction between developing prepared content over time versus simply recording sessions primarily intended for a live audience. Further, he makes no attempt to take the student perspective and compare online learning with reading the textbook or other print materials, which like the live classroom provide fodder for student learning. He forces the comparison with the face to face classroom experience, because that's where the teacher presence is centered. He therefore doesn't ask whether students can learn a subject in a deep way entirely on their own and when that is likely to happen. I'll return to that question later in this piece.
Professor Edmundson talks about his experience with an online course taught by a highly respected instructor. That course featured recorded lectures delivered to a live audience. While the lectures were thoughtful they were not situated in Professor Edmundon's experience. Ultimately he found them unsatisfying. Based on this one course a conclusion is drawn about an entire medium. This is a very poor way to reason.
There are plenty of bad movies, some made by very good directors and with excellent actors. The existence of these bad movies is not sufficient to condemn film, broadly considered. And let's note as well that reviewers can strongly disagree about the merits of a particular movie. For most of the nation film is a much greater source of entertainment and education than the theater is, the actors' preference for theater notwithstanding. In some cases that may represent an absolute preference for the medium by the audience. (Last night, my younger son felt compelled to go to the opening of the Dark Knight Rises, a case in point.) For example, computerized special effects are hard to deliver on stage and some movie goers may be wowed by movies with lots of special effects. But often the preference for movies is simply a reflection of availability. Teaching at a major university it is sometimes easy to forget that both for reasons of price and location the instruction that goes on there is not readily available to a large fraction of the population. Availability matters. In measuring overall importance of a medium it's quite possible for availability to trump quality. Better to argue for a proper balance between the two than to focus solely on the quality dimension.
Let's move on. The biggest flaw in Professor Edmundson's piece is an exclusive focus on the ceiling in education. His argument amounts to making the point that with online learning the ceiling is too low. Implicit in making this argument is that one of two possible assumptions should hold. The first is that much learning in the traditional mode happens at or near the ceiling. The second is that the learning experiences away from the ceiling don't matter. He may truly believe one or the other of these is true. Illinois is not Virgina and teaching Economics is not the same as teaching English. That much I'll readily grant. His experience is undoubtedly different from mine. But I suspect we reside in the same universe, not separate ones.
My experience suggests it is equally important to talk about the floor with traditional approaches and that more often than we'd care to admit the instruction and the student performance falls below what we'd say was an acceptable floor. There is a tendency to ignore the issue because it is unpleasant and exposes the weak underbelly of Higher Ed. Yet if recent national events have taught us anything, they've made clear the need to shine a light even on what is unpleasant. Trying to do my part, I've written about this issue on multiple occasions, most recently this past spring.
In my view the best learning in a course setting happens when the student follows two paths that are distinct but interrelated. The first is the path constructed by the instructor of the course. The second is a path entirely of the student's own making. When the student has done substantial investigation on his own, the good instructor can provide much greater context and generality to what the student is learning as well as to supply the student with further directions for self-study. In this ideal the two paths are mutually supportive. When this happens the student will almost certainly like the course, like the instructor, and learn a good deal.
Shallow to no learning happens when, instead, the student only has one path to follow, the one the instructor provides, and when the student takes a rote learning approach in following that singular path. Alas, rote remains the preferred approach for many students. For such a student the primary goal appears to be to get through the course unscathed. The unintended consequence is that the student emerges from the course unaltered in his thinking. More importantly, the student has gotten no practice at making his own path. Entirely instrumental about his education, he quite possibly becomes cynical about school as a consequence. Early results from the National Survey of Student Engagement showed that often the student indicates satisfaction from the course nonetheless. This appears to be a consequence from the expectation that he will get a good grade and the feeling that he was well prepared for the exams in the course (the way to the good grade). George Kuh explained this finding by arguing that the instruction matched rather than combated the student preference to remain unchallenged intellectually and yet receive good grades. Kuh referred to this as the Disengagement Pact.
Having discussed the functional dual path approach and the dysfunctional instructor generated uni-path approach leads to the question whether there can be good learning when there is a path of the student's making even though the instructor lurks far in the background. The answer appears to be yes depending on the subject matter, the maturity of the student as a learner, and the materials that are made available in advance to facilitate good outcomes. The students seem to intuit this themselves. I recall the opening plenary of the ELI conference in 2007, where Julie Evans spoke about what she had learned from high school students regarding their attitudes about use of technology in instruction. As a general proposition, the students felt it was missing in their math instruction, where it could have been applied to good use. I agree with them, the technology really helps with mathematical content. Similarly, it is entirely believable to me that it could also be good in learning computer science and other STEM disciplines.
Arguing that online learning and particularly the MOOC approach to it can be effective for some students and some subject matter is quite different form claiming that the approach can work for all students and all types of courses. Professor Edmundson offers up a blanket condemnation. He was wrong to do that. A blanket embrace is just as inappropriate. Our time would be better spent were we to try to delimit the boundary of where online can be effective. It would also be well for us to return to the issue of how to break the vicious cycle at the heart of the Disengagement Pact. Each of these stand ahead of us as worthy areas of investigation and further debate.