Thoughts from our common Jonathon

Today’s post is a guest post from a random commenter on the internets, Jonathon Booth.  I have no idea who this person is, so take it for what it’s worth, but I thought his comment on my previous post deserved highlighting and perhaps further discussion.  I hope he’ll check in and comment further:

Having taken a number of online business courses from a reputable university (long story), I’ve come to the conclusion that they are utter garbage. First of all, they are made as easy as possible—which is their primary appeal to students. I took a second year course, and the entire grade was based on weekly reading of one textbook chapter and answering about 10 simple questions from the book. The amount of actual knowledge I gained from these courses was next to nothing, but I did manage to get As in almost all of them. Second, and certainly more important, the students that get the most out of online courses are the students who are already self motivated to learn. The difference between taking an online calculus class and simply buying a calculus textbook and teaching yourself is minimal. This of course puts students who need a bit of extra motivation—even just a professor’s disappointment at their missing class—at a distinct disadvantage. Third, the classes are usually over-enrolled, and the part-time adjunct faculty (who I assume are making next to nothing to teach the classes) never seem to care very much. The whole thing is very rote and is a pathetic imitation of higher education.

I doubt very much, even with technological improvements—always just around the corner—online education has much promise, other than to line the pockets of university administrators.  [Ed note:  my suspicions exactly!]

Pretty perceptive for a student.  Jonathon’s comment tracks with what I’ve heard from my Baa Ram U. students who have taken online courses.  I had a very bright and motivated student in my survey class last term who even had a degree from an online for-profit school, and he commented more than once about how much more demanding even my ridiculously large survey class was compared to his online coursework.  (To his credit, this wasn’t a complaint but rather a recognition of the challenge before him.  He’s a Marine, after all.)

Jonathon left us with a few more thoughts about TED-style lectures as substitutes for lectures from experts in their fields:

(Also, the idea of students sitting and watching lectures never seems to work out. The whole TED talk paradigm simply doesn’t fit, because TED talks are by their nature the opposite of an academic lecture. They’re shallow and dramatic, and made for fun, not real learning. In many in-person lecture classes at my university, professors film and upload their lectures. Unsurprisingly, many students take this as a hint that they don’t need to go to class, and will just watch the lectures “later.” Those lectures rarely get watched, and when they do it’s in a last minute cramming session before an exam.)

I’ve been wondering lately if the TED craze isn’t responsible in part for the rash of entrepreneurial rich dudes who think they’re experts in education because they’ve given a TED lecture, or they’ve watched a dozen of them by their rich dude peers on YouTube.  Interestingly, there is a New Yorker article this week by Nathan Heller that shows just how dominant entertainment values (aggressive rehersal of each talk; like TV genres, most talks follow a rote formula; top-notch production values; heavy, aggressive editing) are in the TED phenomenon.  How can any boring old farts like us workaday proffies compete with that?  I’d look great even in High Def if I only had one lecture per semester to prepare, if I were shot from several different cameras, and someone edited out all of my ummms and ahhhs.  (And who among us wouldn’t look brilliant with all of that support?)

Who are you, Jonathon Booth, man of American history mystery?  I hope you’re not a faculty-type putting on a faux identity to make a point, however much these points deserve making.

32 thoughts on “Thoughts from our common Jonathon

  1. A poorly developed online with minimal interaction and feedback is not really great? Well, that’s a surprise, isn’t it. There’s nothing in that to condemn online classes wholesale. Just evidence that insufficient oversight is going into the online program at this “reputable university .”

    An online course can feature regular and original lectures. It feature plenty of group discussion with interaction and feedback from the faculty member. And it can feature student work and assessment measures (papers, exams, presentations) as in depth as a brick and mortar class. The professor in question is simply not doing the job. And/or the university is over-subscribing and under-supporting the classes.

    I live a real life and a virtual life, and find value and meaning in both. But going virtual isn’t an excuse to not do the work!


  2. dishes & laundry: I’m sure online courses that are challenging & exciting are *possible* in theory.

    In fact, however, how many of them exist? Because — in fact — most online course are taught by adjuncts and/or by underpaid, under-supported, and burned out faculty who know that their administration does not take what they are doing seriously.


  3. That’s the thing, delagar. Online *can* be effective for some students, but the kind of students for which they’re effective (grad students, other highly motivated and already skilled students) are in the minority.

    The target population for online ed are young people and returning adults whose preparation for college-level work might already be shaky. Add to that the specific marketing of online courses as “easy” and “convenient,” and Jonathon’s narrative and analysis of his experience makes perfect sense to me.

    When online ed is effective, it’s not a cheaper form of education. Don’t tell me that all of those MLIS students and grads are really a huge and growing market. (I’m surprised in fact that we haven’t heard from the online MLIS students yet! One of them always comments to contradict my skepticism of online ed. Always!)


  4. The problem in creating viable, useful online coursework is the effort that it takes. To deal with 24/7 student interaction and discussion (in an asynchronous class), to come up with new assignments that work well with solid, original audio-visual components, to grade the work that should be completed in any college-level class, to keep up student interest, to give adequate feedback on a one-on-one basis (remember, the students never meet together)…

    This is way more difficult than anyone in admin or on the op/ed page seems to understand — and certainly isn’t work the peanuts that tenure-track faculty, much less adjuncts, get paid to do it.

    And once you create a course, the chance of your keeping any intellectual property rights on it in the future is slim, so the exploitation continues…

    So Jonathon Booth’s experience will be the standard.

    Hopefully there will be more like him to complain, and we’ll be able to greet the new online course world with as much respect as we give to the correspondence classes of old.


  5. I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, just because it often doesn’t doesn’t work well, especially when implemented in a half-assed manner.

    The opportunities that online education could open up are huge. There are so many people, eager to learn, who, for one reason or another, lead very constrained lives and cannot attend live classes. In my very humble opinion, it is worth giving the medium more time to develop, and using more resources to improve online pedagogy.

    FWIW, online MSLIS grads compete quite well with their meatspace-trained peers. If we’re into online MSLIS-bashing.


  6. “If we’re into online MSLIS-bashing.”

    Who’s bashing anyone? Not me. My point was only that MLIS grads are very vocal and vigilant in defending the quality of their online degrees. As I said above, it’s not surprising that MLIS candidates do well online. The problem is that MLIS students are not the modal online student nor are they the target of online course marketing.

    We’re talking about your average horse here (like Jonathon, perhaps, in his student days), not zebras.


  7. dishes and laundry:

    I appreciate your enthusiasm for the opportunities that online education could offer, and I honestly hope your enthusiasm is not misplaced. I am a faculty member at an institution that is actively expanding its online offerings. A large segment of our students fall in the category of those who should be most likely to succeed at online ed: bright and highly motivated, working on secondary degrees, bound by time constraints (internships offsite). Still, I remain unconvinced that online ed is the way to go.

    The informal comments I have heard from students taking online courses through our institution are not positive. In one case, I overheard a student advising another student not to take the online version of a particular course, but to wait for a semester when the student would be able to take the standard version. I asked why, and a couple of students chimed in with complaints about this course. This is the very same course that someone in administration had highlighted during a faculty workshop as an example of a very effective online course, and a “popular” course among students. A colleague of mine, who is an accomplished researcher and in-class teacher, is currently teaching a course that is mainly online and supplemented by a few in-class meetings. I see how much work he puts into this… and I overhear the negative and dismissive student comments (e.g., they have to go “write something” on the discussion board to get credit for commenting).

    Finally, a family member recently completed a higher-ed degree through a largely online program (think executive MBA, with periodic intensive in-class meetings supplemented by weekly online content). I got to see how courses were structured. There was a lot of effort put forth by the instructors: slides with voice-overs, streamed lectures, chat boards, etc. Still, I don’t think this came close to what a traditional program for the same degree would have been like. It seemed that there was an element of purchasing a degree. Certainly, a non-trivial amount of work was required, but not what would have been required in a traditional context, and not at the same level of depth. My family member shared this assessment.

    I remain skeptical of online education, and very skeptical of the motivation of administrators who promote it so strongly and seemingly without doubts.


  8. JB reminds me of the statistician who drowned in lake with an average depth of three feet. That person actually drowned in 20 feet deep waters. Stanford, for instance, provides free of charge excellent online courses that require a lot of work and achieve depth.

    There are two possibilities. Resisting online a priori will result with the powers will steam roll whatever they see fit on us. That will be a disaster for us. Accepting the potential of new technologies, including online courses, and use them to the help students, improve our teaching outcome and discover potential we are unaware of. The latter can be done and I believe should be done.


  9. Two bits: I was just online looking at TED’s new TED-Ed stuff, hoping that it would indeed prove useful. An interesting bit, but… not there (yet?). Very limited offerings, and it’s hard to deal with substantive stuff in under 12 minutes. (A minor niggle: does limiting it to 12 minutes (or less) cater to or enable short attention spans? Do I want a future engineer who can’t concentrate for more than 12 minutes at a time designing bridges I will use?)

    The videos and podcasts that I offer my students are rarely, if ever, viewed. The idea of flip teaching is interesting, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to get us all re-socialized to buy into, create and use such technological capacities. All of us.


  10. KoshemBos: I think our perspective on online courses varies according to the students we work with. Overwhelmingly, the proffies I know who like me teach undergrads at non-elite, and not especially selective institutions are highly resistant to online ed. We have the students who need to learn how to *do* college while also learning new information and skills.

    I don’t think that it’s counterproductive to point this out to point this out to the powers that be. In fact, I think it’s borderline malpractice for those of us who believe this NOT to speak up, ask questions, and demand real support (and not to mention copyright & intellectual property rights) for any online education that we do.

    I don’t think it’s an accident that online ed is in fact mostly being conducted by untenured or non-tenure eligible faculty at scammy for-profits schools and other non-elite institutions, while its public face is that of glamour MOOCs taught by proffies at name-brand schools. Talk about a bubble! That’s the real higher-ed bubble.

    As always, we must ask: Whose interests does this serve? I sure don’t think it’s serving the students in most online classes, but it’s serving the interests of some short-sighted administrators and the for-profit scamsters who are gobbling up G.I. Bill $$$ and offering our vets very little that will improve their lives.


  11. I’ve been involved in online learning since the beginning. (Since before the beginning, actually. I once had to take a correspondence course.) I’ve always been an enthusiast because I’m a hermit. I’ve done most of my work with it as a prof rather than a student, but I have been on both sides of the fence.


    1) It takes way MORE time (way, way, way, way more) to do a good job, especially on the teacher’s side. Done right, it would be the opposite of a profit center. We’ll know educrats are interested in online *education* when they devote more resources to it, not less. And, yes, if it had all those resources, it’s a useful adjunct to other methods of teaching.

    2) It’s suitable only for people who already have all the basic background and only need some specific training or advanced courses. The same people who could use that calculus text and get something out of it. It will never replace school. The Australians have lots of experience with distance ed for their far flung rural communities, and they fly the kids in to schools for face-to-face interaction at the beginnings and ends of semesters. Otherwise things just don’t work.

    3) The last thing — and this came as a surprise to me — is that the brain simply responds differently when there is no human interaction. There is a lack of engagement on many levels in purely online work that leads to poorer outcomes. That’s true even of software developers working together across continents. I mean, is there anyone more machine-oriented than software devlopers? And yet they’ve found that physically getting together at the start and then at intervals during the project is essential to doing good work.

    So, sure, online ed has its place. But it’s not in that shower of funds and glory where the educrats hallucinate.


  12. “I guess Mr. Rogers was right after all, some 30-40 years ago: “You know, human beings learn best and most from other human beings. That’s all part of being human.””

    It’s likely you learned that gem from him while not in the same room. Unless… you really were his neighbor 😉


  13. Yes. And I’m aware of the irony that we’re having this conversation online. But of course, I wasn’t taking Mr. Rogers for preschool or Kindergarten credit, and this ain’t a peer-reviewed blog.

    I’ve never argued that broadcast or digital technology are completely useless. I just think that they’re weak media for education compared to schools with teachers, libraries, labs, and etc.


  14. I’m going to de-lurk to take this opportunity to make a rare (and timely?) comment on this increasingly controversial issue. And to thank Historiann for providing this forum.

    Where to begin? What bothers me about the push for online education is that it is difficult for me to see the net benefits of it. Once you grant the caveats Historiann mentions–some students, in some fields, in some courses of study, can benefit from online ed–I’m not sure where the gains are. Once you move beyond intro courses intended to convey/teach basic information/skills, the classroom of millions model isn’t very useful. Can we do a reading and discussion section in a virtual setting? Sure, but I can’t imagine how effective it will be with more than 15 or 20 students participating, just like an in-person class. As joellecid mentions, an online version of the course is likely to be more work for the instructor, not less, and less instructive, or less verifiably so (without incurring more costs in assessments). And for what? To avoid the inconvenience of everyone meeting in the same place at the same time. The inconvenience of interacting with other human beings.

    As I look up from my perch on the bottom rung of the academic ladder (with the sound of ill-tempered sea bass snapping at my feet), I can’t help but view the push toward online ed in a cynical light, as a smokescreen to enable administrators to cut labor costs. Yes, I know the primary gains expected from online ed are on the revenue side–more customers, er, um, *students* than ever before. But it seems clear to me that outside of very basic classes and non-normative students (Historiann’s “zebras”) the gains in that area are pretty limited. More importantly, in many cases they’re not really even gains, unless you view teachers salaries simply as an unnecessary expense. On the contrary, in many cases the jobs and salaries of the grad students that teach and TA intro classes are an investment in human capital, in ways that are both measurable ($) and difficult to measure (education/training).

    The only other way I can see cost savings coming out of virtual ed is in eliminating the overhead costs of physical infrastructure. The subtitle of that Prospect article (“Will online learning spell the end of universities?”) alludes to this. The dream here is to get rid of all those expensive buildings and amenities, especially the rock walls that feature in every article I’ve read about college costs even though I’ve not yet been to a uni with rock wall. And of course getting rid of the staff required to administer all that stuff. But I’ve not yet heard anyone point out that the IT infrastructure of such an institution could well be just as (more?) expensive than your standard brick-and-mortar uni. Anecdotal evidence suggests that IT investment and maintenance has been the primary driver of expanding uni budgets over the last two decades. Certainly the “janitors” and “maintenance” staff of these virtual institutions have higher salaries than typical among their brick-and-mortar colleagues. I mean, there has to be some reason tuition at the U. of Phoenix is so damn high. It can’t all be going into investors’ pockets.

    So what happens when we’ve made the transition to Virtual Nirvana University and it turns out the cost of a class where you actually learn something is the same as it would have been at Boring Bricks University? I’m sure fingers will point to those lazy tenured professors with their six-figure retirement packages, if there are any left to blame…


  15. Dino, I think you are right that this is about the fantasy of finally cutting labor costs at unis. But the truth is that anyone who can read a spreadsheet going back more than 5 years knows that labor has already been cut dramatically with the casualization of faculty labor. The adjunctification of our universities has cut the heart out of them, but still the administrators want us to do more with less. (Like the expectation that every teacher’s and each school’s students’ standardized test scores will continue to get better and better, every year, or we’ll label them “failures?” Sound familiar?)

    Cue the online ed blather. It’s teh awesumm future! where education will be free for everyone!!! Except nothing is free. We pay taxes to support schools, roads, parks, libraries, and emergency services. We pay for internet and cable access, and for the energy and water that flows through our homes. We pay for all of the material goods in our homes, as well as insurance for our health, homes, and cars. We pay physicians for their expertise. Everyone loves to bash lawyers, but when it’s your divorce, your bankruptcy, your liberty on the line, you want and will pay for the best you can afford. Why should other kinds of expertise be free?

    How many people will bother to earn research degrees if there are no jobs in their disciplines? Any a$$hole can (and they DO, believe me) make videos of themselves and upload them to YouTube. Does that make them experts in something? Maybe entertainment, but that’s not going to fix your tooth, build a strong bridge, or design a workable machine tool.

    I think it all goes back to the ressentiment that teachers and professors occupy a profession that has been largely resistant to technological innovation and outsourcing to cut the costs of our labor.

    Until now, that is.


  16. I’d like to expand on another element of Historiann’s critique about online education and the students it benefits least. There are many students in state unis who are really struggling. I have colleagues at other institutions who have had students in their courses who are functionally illiterate. Many of these same schools are struggling with retention and trying to push as many students-with-problems through the system as possible. These students – students ranging from the unprepared to the learning disabled to the functionally illiterate – are being thrown by the wayside as it as, faced with larger classes and underpaid/overworked adjunct faculty who don’t have the time to sort through and met everybody’s learning needs. Places where students have greater needs are not surprisingly places with the fewest resources, and it is these students who will suffer most grievously from online education pushes, as they become further alienated from the human help they require.


  17. I remember the sad problem of near-illiterate students from my graduate years at Big Ten U. Even at my selective SLAC, (which I’m afraid does have a rock-climbing wall) most of our firstyear students also need to learn “to do” college. Time management, study strategies, often writing on a basic level, must be drilled into them before trying anything sophisticated. Our students often come from some of the top high schools in the country, and their writing can be shockingly bad. On-line would be a disaster for them, much less the students Perpetua faces. I too am afraid this is an attempt ar de-skilling and gutting labor costs.


  18. I’m wondering if the appeal of online courses to educrats – infinite scalability! total Market penetration! – doesn’t implicitly rest on the very educational model that advocates of online education often explicitly contrast themselves with – the ‘sage on the stage’.

    How else could a single course reach an unbounded number of students? unless you believe that learning is simply the transmission (conduction? radiation?) of knowledge from professor to student the math just doesn’t work out.

    All the features that @KoshemBos and @Dishes and Laundry rightly point out as vastly increasing the online experience are going to scale at the same rate as the students do.

    As @Dino and @joellecid point out, the instructional costs of providing a ‘discussion section’ experience asynchronously are higher than the traditional model.

    The only possible economies of scale are in offsetting the costs of producing the ‘main’ course content. Or, you know, reducing quality and hoping no-one notices.


  19. My school actually got on the front page of a national “paper of record” for being out in front on the rock-climbing “turn” in the student life movement. No undergraduate that I’ve ever talked to liked on-line courses. They liked *taking* them, mind you, because they’re as affably cynical as the system at large is, and you can stay home and take them during breaks while working where you can get work, as a result of local relationships developed since grammar school. But no, they don’t like them in any serious sense of that word, and they’re surprisingly articulate about why not.

    I believe that the administrative lock-step around online is less about cost savings, which is mostly a rhetorical point and one that they won’t be held to when, as people here point out, it doesn’t turn out to work that way. Rather, it’s about power and authority, and the dream of inserting more of a command-and-control, subordination/superordination element into the instructional workforce in its relationships with the institution. They’ve been trying this in bricks and mortar mode, viz. “assessment,” etc., but it’s imagined to be easier in cyberspace. To exercise authority on the ground you would have to find out where the classroom buildings are and then actually walk there. One high-level adminstrator here arrived late for a meeting with the department because ze walked right past the building (within sight-line of hir own) and only slowly realized ze didn’t know where we were located.

    I’m also skeptical about Koshembos’s argument (which I’m doubtless oversimplifying) from what *would* happen if other things do or don’t happen under the “steamroller” metaphor. A staggering amount of things get justified in meetings I’m at by reference to the “it’s already here, it’s here to stay, it’s not going away… we need to get out in front of it, need to make it our friend, make it work for us…” etc. And while this is being rhetorized I’m imagining administrators rolling around on their rugs laughing at how much of their work is being done for them. Is there an “Air Traffic Controllers” moment out there waiting? I think not; people with slightly different takes on the broader adjunctification movement may reach other conclusions.

    I *am* convinced that there’s literally absolutely zero grassroots support out there underlying campaigns for academic “accountability,” “transparency,” “evidence” of learning outcomes, and the like. Unless you do push polling or are talking to members of various national educational association/lobbying entities, it’s just not there at the bus depot or at Joe’s Cafe. And where it *is* coming from, again it’s mostly about relations of power, intra-academe, and how those can be changed.


  20. I don’t teach in an elite university (my sons do). I just taught an online course with 15 students/physicians. Some of them were very bright while others were not. The school of medicine decided on the online format, but only I teach medical infromatics.

    The course was about average (plus or minus); never taught that course or such students before. Next time the online course will be better. There are more questions than answers, but the experience was positive. I can be extreme specific.


  21. The argument that online education will save money on the physical plant of universities is all very well, but then why, even in the most cash-strapped institutions, does money seem to appear to build a new dorm or gym or sustainability center, even if there’s nothing in the general fund to pay faculty salaries? (Rock-climbing walls are clearly a red herring, though. I was close to many of the students on the committee that lobbied for a climbing wall at my undergrad, and they were talking about a one-time outlay of less than $10,000, and then employing a few trained/licensed work-study students to staff it a few hours a week–a pittance in comparison to the money that’s routinely laid out to upgrade facilities in accordance with other student-life priorities.)

    Historiann, Perpetua, and Northern Barbarian, however, all pointed out what seems to me to be one of the most important issues lurking behind the enthusiasm for online education: that it’s exactly what struggling students (and perhaps especially those at non-elite institutions) who haven’t yet learned how to “do” college *don’t* need. Yet it’s those students who are being most heavily encouraged, or given no alternative other than, to take online courses in formats pioneered by institutions like Stanford and MIT. You rarely wind up at a place like Stanford or MIT–and you even less rarely make it through all four years–unless you’re quite good at playing the college game. And if my similarly fancy-pants undergraduate institution (which, incidentally, is just starting to experiment with online) was anything to go by, part of being good at doing college was being *so* good at doing college that you didn’t have to go to class to get As. (Whether you actually *learned* anything was another story.) Whether the lecture notes are posted online or not, or even whether the class is a lecture or not, success at these schools is very often contingent on seeing how good a final paper or exam you can pull out of your posterior after having not kept up with the coursework at all over the course of the semester. And so an online class, where you can choose only to watch the lectures that you need, and can choose to watch them while doing other things; where evaluation is standardized or self-administered; and where there’s not enough resources for real student-faculty contact, is not going to hurt very bright students who already have enough privilege to conduct their “real-life” educations in that way, and maybe would be a positive extra addition to the life of a motivated student looking to gain some very specific skills or knowledge that are teachable in that format.

    But the problem is that these very privileged students *also* have the privilege of being at places where, if they do screw up, someone will notice, catch them, pick them up, and give them a second chance (and a third, and a fourth…). That’s not an opportunity shared by students at other universities where cost-cutting is the prime directive and contact with faculty is already very impersonal and growing more so by the day. I wonder if this is a situation a bit parallel to that of grade-school education reform, in which people like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee who didn’t themselves go to public school misguidedly think they know what’s best for children in an inner-city public school–but in fact end up making things worse.


  22. I’m sure it has been said before, but in the case of my small liberal arts college it is about the money. Not so much about “saving” the overhead costs, but really, about our ITR getting to justify and expand its existence. They are the ones who present this stuff to the Board, and then snicker and mock the faculty who are “too stubborn” to see the wave of the future.

    And then there rate the consultants who will get paid an enormous amount of money to come in and tell us how to implement this and offer “support services” to the faculty teaching.


  23. In my large state institution, one of the drivers of online education is how to provide the large “barrier” courses – lower division courses — for which there are not enough (literal) seats. So the physical plant issues are there. I’m sure that online education can work (though most studies show that hybrid formats actually work much better), but I don’t think that means it’s the answer to all of higher education’s problems. It’s just the quick fix of the week.

    I’d like to add two things to the discussion:
    1. One group of students — the original online market — were the older, returning to college students. Many of them have the time management skills, if not always the study skills. It’s the focused time to get to and from campus that they lack. For them, well designed courses work. Badly designed ones allow them to get a degree.

    2. This, from the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s story of U Va’s “Painfully Public Lesson in Leadership”, about online ed done right:
    “At the University System of Maryland, for instance, professors have spent the past five years meticulously redesigning courses, often using technology to accommodate ever-larger undergraduate class sections. The guiding principle of “first do no harm” is central to Maryland’s project, which greenlights a course only after a pilot program demonstrates that students perform as well or better in the new format.

    Some of Maryland’s course redesigns have demonstrated significant cost reductions, but improved learning outcomes have always been the central goal, says William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the Maryland system.”


  24. Indyanna, you mention that students are surprisingly articulate about their dissatisfactions with online ed. I’d be curious to know what they say, should you happen to drop back by here.


  25. I wonder if part of the reason why the general public so readily believes that teachers are an expendable waste of money is that they haven’t a clue what teaching involves.

    On some level, there’s the assumption that “I’ve helped my kind with their totally obvious homework. That’s got to be the same as keeping a class of thirty six year-olds orderly and interested while they learn how to read. Any bozo can stand in front of a class and point to the alphabet.”

    Whereas every bozo is fairly clear that trying to fix their own plumbing leads to floods and high repeair bills.

    I wonder if it would help if we lived in some utopia where people had to actually, say, teach third-graders for a day before they were allowed to say anything about education or teachers.


  26. Quixote–exactly. And I would like for our VP of ITR to have to teach a class of bored freshman World History–which is a gen ed requirement at our school.


  27. Oh wow.

    I’ve been busy working the last few days and missed this.

    For the record, (I solemnly swear) I grew up in New York and am currently an undergraduate student at McGill University (though McGill is not where I gained my online course experience). I study History—mostly American—and Economics. Jonathon Booth is really my name. Another long story, but the short version is that it was my father’s name, and he grew up in Canada.

    I’m going to be doing a History MA at McGill next year, and then hopefully a Ph.D., [shameless self promotion:] if any readers feel like accepting me.

    While I think that it is possible for online education to be done well and be educational (ha!), the way it seems to be shaking out in reality is far from that, and I really think only serves to exacerbate inequalities. I somehow doubt the future of Ivy League/Expensive Liberal Arts College education is online. It will be (the vast majority) of students, those at state schools, community colleges, and so on, that are stuck taking online courses. Obviously, many people defend this as a way to give more people low cost education, but the problem is that it will end up giving all of these students a low quality education. All the ways to make online courses good cost money, which throws off the calculation that makes them so popular among administration types. The economic logic that makes online courses appealing makes them bad. So yeah, we could spend a lot of money to create high quality, professionally edited lecture videos for online classes, or we could have real lectures and seminars.

    The most likely development for online education will further pry apart the two (or three or four) tiers of the higher education system, leaving the rich to pay $70,000 a year to take seminars on Proust, and everyone else to take HR management courses online. And, as many of you have said, the students forced into the online courses, are often the ones with the worst preparation who would benefit the most from good, intensive, real life instruction.

    As for online discussions, in my experience they are a total waste of time. Students post as much as they are told to post on the discussion boards (and the keeners post an extra time to get their A+). Since the “discussions” are generally weekly, 90% of students post the day before the discussion is due, which really makes anything approaching a real-time discussion impossible. The online courses I took were business courses (which are a combination of common sense and jargon. Business education is an incredible waste of time). I can’t imagine taking a course online that actually required thoughtful analysis and criticism. I have no idea how a history seminar could run effectively online. Though I guess many online ed promoters wouldn’t mind eliminating the subjects that don’t do well online, but that’s another topic for another time. But even the kind of vocation learning that online education seems better designed to teach requires hands-on experience that (obviously) isn’t available online. (The one exception to this—not surprisingly the subject of most feature articles about online education—is computer science. The only tool you need is your computer, and even more in-person computer science classes involve memorizing and practicing coding. But again, the difference between paying to take a computer science class, and buying a C++ textbook is minimal.)

    As for articles about TED talks, my personal favorites are and Though I’m still waiting for something as caustic as I feel about it…

    Sorry for not really reading through all the comments, I guess I’m a bit late on this one. oh well!


  28. @ quixote: On reflection, I may have been to some degree projecting, or auto-completing, some degree of “articulation” onto more open-ended statements that students have made, but I think not distorting their general sense. They speak of some degree of isolation, sitting there at the screen. Advocates of the “convenience” of distance ed sometimes seem to think that the customers are sitting there in model homes, forgetting that many if not most students are crammed into smaller and more oppressive spaces than they might prefer. If they take the courses during winter breaks, of course, they might be in parental spaces, but that’s another issue. They speak of not much knowing who it is on the other end of the system. Since they mostly take online courses to get general education requirements “out of the way,” they seldom know much about the faculty even in a caricatured sense. I think that in what my department mistakenly calls “majors’ courses” we all allow enough cross-reference data to leak into the classroom to at least partly demystify–and thus humanize–the tribalized distance of our colleagues as a collective body. It’s hard for that to happen online. The advisees I talk to are pretty candid about realizing that you get some measure out of *any* format or undertaking what you put into it, and ruefully honest about the fact that they do, in some instances, slack-off enough to incur harm, whether in class or on-line. And as I say, they’re affably-cynical enough to admit that if you keep the damage to a reasonable minimum, at least you’re three credits closer to having something quasi-tangible in hand, in the form of a diploma. All that said, most of them do seem to prefer “actual” classes. Who knows? Maybe they’re just humoring me.


  29. Interesting, Indyanna. That element of isolation is I think related to what I called reduced engagement. There’s something about being faced with an actual human that triggers million year-old pathways in our minds. And there’s no way to fool that primitive system with a picture. The result is a feeling of doing whatever-it-is all by yourself in a void where nobody really cares. Or something like that.

    I’ve felt it myself, and I’m pretty much the opposite of a people person. I really enjoy working by myself, studying by myself, and solitude. I was an early and huge enthusiast for online learning. So I was very surprised to discover, even in me, that strange flat sense of disconnection. I’d never felt it in “real” classes, even ones I disliked.

    If this is a real factor and not just something peculiar to a few of us, then it’s endemic to distance learning and can’t be cured by “doing it right.” We’d need a lot more research to find out how to compensate for it.


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