• August 30, 2015

Online Learning: Reaching Out to the Skeptics

An Academic in American Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Another major study has arrived—this time from the Department of Education confirming that online courses can be at least as effective in achieving measurable learning outcomes as traditional, face-to-face courses.

At the same time, a study from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities shows that 70 percent of the 10,000 faculty members surveyed believe that online courses are either "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" to traditional ones. Professors who have taught online are more positive about the approach, but 48 percent of them are likewise convinced that online courses are not as good as face-to-face teaching.

That antagonism might alarm anyone who attempts online teaching in response to administrative encouragements; some of your colleagues will regard you with suspicion, and they may even tell students to avoid your courses. Just like online publication, teaching online entails some amount of risk to one's reputation.

Consider the views of Elayne Clift, in "I'll Never Do It Again," an essay she wrote for The Chronicle about online teaching. After receiving training of unspecified scope, Clift taught online once, had a negative experience, and blamed her difficulties on the medium: "Me? I'll stick to the virtues of live human interaction—in the classroom and elsewhere—in a world rapidly becoming, as some of my students might say, 'totally unreal!'"

That, of course, is a familiar rhetorical strategy of those who dismiss online teaching methods: They present themselves as engaged in some heroic, humane, but probably doomed struggle against the forces of soulless technology. She's the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi urging Luke Skywalker to "use the Force" to destroy the Death Star, from which, one might assume, all online courses will eventually originate. It's a persuasive narrative, deeply conservative, and as old as the romantic assault on the Enlightenment. I've used it myself to defend the traditional bookish culture of libraries.

But my purpose here is not to argue for or against online education per se. Rather, I am trying to understand the objections. Working with other faculty members, librarians, and technologists, I am also trying to eliminate some obstacles to the use of new teaching methods in the context of my own medium-size liberal-arts college. We have experimented with online courses in the summer for about five years now and are making gradual progress—among a coterie of enthusiasts supported by internal grants—toward the integration of new technologies in courses across the curriculum.

As someone who teaches 36 credit hours a year, or more, I give a lot of thought to what is and isn't working in my courses and use a variety of methods. Sometimes I teach the same course in different ways, depending on the circumstances, such as the social dynamics of a particular group of students. With some seasonal variation, my teaching has become increasingly blended, so that I can no longer clearly define any of my courses as "online" or "face to face."

Every course is different, sometimes drastically so, and the success or failure of any class depends on too many variables for me to ascribe it to any single medium. As a result, I find myself in a constant state of critical reflection on my teaching methods—whether they are working in any given class and for any particular student—and, for that reason, I prefer to have more tools at my disposal, rather than fewer.

I do, however, support Clift and the other skeptics of online teaching to the extent that they are articulating their own experiences and perceptions. Their concerns need to be heard. It takes a long time to develop a repertoire of effective teaching styles, and the techniques and intuitions that teachers develop should not be cast aside lightly. Teaching is so complex that categorical distinctions—traditional courses are superior; online, inferior; or vice versa—are far too simplistic to take seriously as a basis for institutional decision making.

Professionals with many years of experience and a track record of proven success should be allowed, within appropriate boundaries, to exercise their own judgment about the best ways to reach their students. On the other hand, the rhetoric of traditionalism can sometimes be more than a legitimate assertion of time-tested personal experience; it can be a mask for understandable but counterproductive attitudes and emotions.

It's a lot of work to learn new teaching methods and adapt new technologies. Faculty members find it difficult to be placed in the role of the student once again, making all kinds of embarrassing mistakes in a hierarchical context in which one cannot afford to lose face. It's tempting to dismiss new technology and make a virtue of one's resistance to change, even to the point of dismissing the efforts of those who embrace it and demonstrate its value.

Some skeptics may even agree to teach online—perhaps in compliance with some administrative inducement—with the determination to prove that it does not work. Having never used a hammer, they drive their nails in crooked, blame the tool, say all buildings are useless, sit down at the foot of a tree, wait for an audience of people who don't like saws, drills, or spirit levels, and say that all house builders have given up the core of their authentic humanity, which can only be found under the open sky in the state of nature.

Obviously, some faculty members have convictions that no amount of evidence to the contrary can change. But I think there are increasing numbers of teachers who, while mildly skeptical, are at least open to the idea of experimentation. Persuading them to recognize the possibilities of new technologies has at least seven interlocking components:

1. Move away from a dichotomous view of teaching as online or face to face, and toward the idea that all courses can potentially involve both methods.

2. Create opportunities for consultation and collaboration among faculty members, librarians, and technologists.

3. Eliminate most of the uncertainties and technical problems faced by faculty members who would like to try new methods but don't know how and lack the equipment.

4. Provide continuing support to faculty members who experiment with new teaching methods, not just during the development phase of a course but throughout its implementation, so that teachers can learn and adapt "on the ground."

5. Find new ways to streamline the process of developing online content and managing courses to protect the time of faculty members.

6. Reduce the isolation of teachers by promoting the development of collaborative new-media projects—with students as well as other faculty members—as a legitimate and recognized supplement to traditional, solitary research production.

7. Show the effectiveness and complementarity of different approaches to teaching, taking care that assessment instruments do not skew the results.

Last spring, consideration of all of those factors, combined with the desire to experiment more in my own courses, led me to seek a small internal grant to test a new-media studio based in our college library: essentially, a scaled-down, lower-cost version of the services provided at many larger universities. It's something like a garage start-up with only some basic equipment—an iMac, a microphone, a video camera, some backdrops, and lighting—and it's one of the reasons for my taking up part-time residence in our library this year (as I described in my last column). The studio will provide everything I need to create and edit professional-quality audio and video podcasts, which will enable me to save class time for discussions, workshops, group projects, presentations, peer reviews, and individual consultations, among other strategies that I find more workable in a face-to-face context than even the most carefully crafted lecture and PowerPoint presentation.

For the next two months, I'll be the only person staffing our so-called New Media Studio, with considerable support from the librarians and technologists. But I'll be reworking one of my courses as I am teaching it, in collaboration with my students, and developing a few projects with other faculty members who want to develop vodcasts for their courses. Later, after the completion of a two-credit course, "The Theory and Practice of the Digital Humanities," which I'll be teaching this fall, some of my students will be working with other faculty members to develop projects in the studio but also using Flip cameras and computer labs throughout the campus, as they experiment with a variety of approaches to blurring the boundaries between old and new media, online and face to face, as well as teacher and student.

Ultimately, the quality of the teacher and the effort put forth by the individual student are more important than any specific method. A method that fails for one person can succeed for another, and so I want to keep the chalkboard, the overhead projector, and the cross-legged conversation under the trees just as much as I'd like to see more faculty members supplement their traditional teaching with a variety of new-media and online projects.

If it works, and sustaining grant money can be cultivated, the New MediaStudio should make Goal No. 7 a lot easier for faculty members at my college. The studio will reduce the demands of technical knowledge, and the results will be considerably enhanced over, say, recording a lecture with a lapel microphone attached to an iPod (though that was a crucial first step). My ultimate hope is that, by exposing more faculty members to the possibilities of online teaching, we can reduce their counterproductive skepticism. We can show the potential for those methods to enhance the things that we value most as teachers—the joy of learning, and the sharing of that experience with others.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.


1. chandrak - September 18, 2009 at 11:14 am

I had the opportunity to teach online. Online courses depends upon the clientele, i.e., students. Some students are not motivated to learn and they want good grades and a degree. Based upon my experience I have to agree that online courses are either "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" to traditional ones. There is nothing like face-to-face interaction. It is easy to cheat online. We may have to question the value of on-line degrees.

2. chandrak - September 18, 2009 at 11:15 am

I had the opportunity to teach online. Online courses depends upon the clientele, i.e., students. Some students are not motivated to learn and they want good grades and a degree. Based upon my experience I have to agree that online courses are either "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" to traditional ones. There is nothing like face-to-face interaction. It is easy to cheat online. We may have to question the value of on-line degrees.

3. minnesotan - September 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm

I knew a guy in undergrad who would take people's troublesome courses for them for a hefty fee. He was able to do this only because of online teaching, and when I mentioned something to my department head, she said she'd get him. From what I hear, the guy is still up to the same tricks, and living quite well off of the online learning system.

Is this typical? I don't know. It's just an anecdote that still pisses me off.

I'll teach online, but until we have instant thumbprint identification, or mandatory video chat during exams, I won't be satisfied I'm teaching the right people.

4. dank48 - September 18, 2009 at 04:45 pm

The possibility for fraud exists in online courses. It also exists in classroom courses. That's no argument against either online or classroom education. Do you insist on positive identification--really, not just pro forma?--and face-to-face chat during classroom exams?

And if you insist on video chat with my daughter during an exam, you'd better supply an interpreter or be ready to explain why the ADA doesn't apply to you.

5. farm_boy - September 18, 2009 at 05:13 pm

It's an interesting rhetorical trick to label the critics of online teaching as "conservative" when the underlying purpose of online teaching is capitalistic profit by the private technology makers and/or cost cutting desires by administrators.

It would be nice if all new technologies were judged by their pedagogical usefulness.

6. d_f_b - September 18, 2009 at 05:53 pm

These sorts of discussions nearly always, it seems, eventually degenerate into the sides talking past each other and assuming that their experiences are generalizable to all populations and situations. Why not start out by admitting the *possibility* that online education may be better for some populations and subjects while face-to-face education is better for others, and test that? Maybe then we'd start to get past the simplistic arguments we hear altogether too much of.

7. ggridley - September 18, 2009 at 06:30 pm

I agree with d_f_b. I teach both f2f and online. The subject and level of the students can make a difference. I teach nursing and believe beginning students need that f2f, my advanced students do not and they are the ones asking for more online theory courses. Also, testing is not the only way to assess learning. In addition, there should be administrative support for faculty across the board, f2f and online. I enjoy both methods.

8. ednak - September 18, 2009 at 07:26 pm

This is a refreshing approach to the debate on online learning. In the past month or two, there have been fairly aggressive arguments on both sides of this debate. This advice column helps illuminate that this does not have to be a zero-sum argument. Both methods will continue to evolve and we should share information on what is working and what is not within both teaching / learning mediums.

9. john_drake - September 19, 2009 at 10:53 am

I taught several online courses, and I found them disappointing. The students broke into two groups: self-motivated and not- motivated. The self-motivated did at least as well as students in f2f versions, sometimes better, but the not-motivated couldn't be helped. Plus, the amount of time involved in setting up and running an online turned out to be equal to teaching two f2f classes. Consequently, I've no interest in teaching an entirely online course again, unless someone shows me how to make it a better experience for everyone, including the instructor. On the other hand, I appreciate very much the use of online instruction as a supplement to a f2f course. In that role it improves learning and makes my life easier.

10. mmayper - September 19, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I am an online faculty who used to teach in the live classroom. It has been five years in the virtual classroom and I have no intention of going back. There is nothing wrong with the live classroom. Online is definitely not for everyone, teachers and students alike. There are several reasons why the online classroom is preferable to me. I love the idea that I am reaching students in remote areas or those who are unable to leave home due to physical challenges. Because of the online modality, many of my students who hoped for the opportunity of a college degree are able to realize their dreams. All students have an equal opportunity to participate in class discussions through online forums with no limits of time or distraction of 20 waving hands or the clock ticking away to the end of class. As an online faculty, I am also not distracted by the hands that never go up or the ones that never go down, not to mention the ones who are not fully engaged. I am lucky that my university provides a wonderful and user friendly online platform, continuous academic and technical support, and a full toolbox of rigorous curriculum materials to support faculty and students. Students must have a lot of self motivation and discipline to achieve success in an online degree program, and some I can help and some I can't. As I said before, online is not for everyone, but with the numbers of those prospective students who want degrees, but do not have the flexibility to attend brick and mortar universities, the online modality is the solution to the many students who want and deserve the chance to earn a college degree.

11. ericodgaard - September 19, 2009 at 07:45 pm

The very premise of the argument belies the suggestion that Benton is reaching out: characterizing a negative opinion (and a merely relativistic one, at that) as "antagonism" is revealing. This is particularly true given the fundamental logical error opening this piece -- that on-line courses CAN be as effective as brick-and-mortar courses does NOT mean they ARE, in general.

Many of us use on-line components in our classes today (And so we could argue that a lot of classes already are "hybrid" classes). But I suspect my experiences with the medium are common -- and, strangely, are not addressed in this "outreach" column. Those experiences, in sum ...

1. DL classes routinely get much larger enrollments.
2. The instructors get little or no additional release time. Combined with item 1, it is an axiom that students who want one-on-one interactions have less time in which to do so.
3. Both anecdotal experience and scholarly papers show that a DL course takes more work than an equally successful brick-and-mortar class.
4. Students in my building are routinely overheard boasting about how easy DL classes are, because the required amount of coursework and rigor of assessment are much lower than for brick-and-mortar classes.
5. As others have pointed out here, cheating is easy, sometimes professional, and there are limited ways in which to prevent it.

Yes, many of these things COULD be done differently. Administrations could somehow find a lot of money in this recession, and provide all sorts of support. The faculty teaching these courses could choose to spend a bunch of extra, uncredited time on them. Departments and instructors could ignore the pressure to keep the courses easy, albeit at the risk of the large portion of enrollment that seems to be tied to the reputation of such courses as being easier.

These things COULD happen. It is just that on average, in the places my peers and I work, these things do not happen.

The percentage of professors who will naysay DL no matter the evidence is much smaller than this paper implies. These technologies are, after all, optional to most of the Academy. A professor who is technophobic and has insufficient technical support from their institution has every right to protect their reputation (and the reputation of the institution) by naysaying the medium.

12. paievoli - September 20, 2009 at 11:10 am

I have been an academic in HE for 25 years. I love F2F nothing like face reading to get a feel for the class. However with new technology like iChat available on every new iMac you can see their faces. It really matters how you teach. I love to present a question and then ask for opinions and rebuttal. The opinions must be backed up by research - valid and peer reviewed and there must be some form of hypothesis. Not just "I think", it has got to be according to this article or that article. It is great when they can post video from credible sources to make the point or links to valid websites not some blog. So I think if you get with the program and see what is out here online education can work very well. It is not for everyone like radio and Television was not for everyone. But its time will eventually come and like ll old ways of doing things they will fade away into obscurity.
The real issue is how to use this new medium to continue to make college affordable for all. How not to have a "digital divide" cheat young people out of an education. Things like FB are killing it IMHO. Social networking will be the future of study groups and coursework. Get involved. I'm old and I'm working with it everyday. It is fascinating to hear opinions from diverse cultures in real time. Please read my blog to see what I mean. http://patrickaievoli.wordpress.com

13. timebandit - September 21, 2009 at 11:40 am

This is such an interesting debate playing out over the forms of education, and while I am interested in making online courses viable, I think the cheating issue has to be addressed before I will really trust these courses. Note that I am saying this despite a positive experience with online courses. Back in my master's degree, I was a TA for the online version of a technical class in a professional program. We used blackboard and I took questions via IM. Some students loved it and some found it difficult to do the exercises without the support of a live lab session. I liked the experience, and I suppose both my feelings and those of the students related to different personality types and willingness to ask questions via new media.

Despite this good experience, now that I have been teaching (live) classes for a while, I have realized the extent of the rampant plagiarism that exists in the classroom today, which runs the gamut from simple copying and pasting from the internet to outright buying of papers from paper mills. As a SLAC where I taught, I'd estimate this at about 5-10% per class, and maybe another 5% or more that I didn't catch. (Note that I have even seen very bright students do this, due to lack of time or willingness to put in the effort -- though they are much harder to catch.) I can only imagine that this problem is worse for online courses, because at least with a live class, I have some interaction with the lower achieving students. With a live class, I can usually tell if say, the level of writing of their final papers is very different from their comments in class. Without these small cues, how would I know if they are paying someone else to do all of their assignments? (Which could obviously yield consistent work if done by the same other person.) Even a live video link-up could be suspect, unless we had access to a photo roster, in addition to the ADA issues mentioned above. To solve this problem, the only reliable solution I can see is to require students to do a final exam in person on the campus. How else can we be reasonably certain that students are doing the major assignments themselves? I'd love to hear suggestions.

So while I support the egalitarian goals of distance learning, including better access for those with disabilities, active military personnel, etc., the cheating issue must be addressed. Otherwise I think we have to accept that a significant number of students can and will be buying their degrees, devaluing the degree... Perhaps some will argue that this is the nature of the university today, but it does not sit well with my conscience.

14. resistk - September 22, 2009 at 08:13 pm

The problem with online classes is the same with traditional schools - exploitation of adjunct faculty. But I'd have to say being an adjunct for an online school is better, it pays at least twice as much and no commuting involved. However, watch for online schools to outsource to India as soon as they gain a reputation - it's all about the money and always has been.

15. albertfisher - September 27, 2009 at 10:26 am

Many people who may read these posts do not master all of the acronyms that one could use or invent. The following could easily cause frustration and wasted time for non-English speakers. Please respect the efforts they make and refrain from using them. Here are the ones I found in this thread:

"As a SLAC where I taught..." - no idea

"I was a TA for the online..." - Teaching assistant?

"Things like FB are killing it IMHO." - FaceBook (I suppose) In my humble opinion (I know)

"...who will naysay DL no matter the evidence..." - No idea...could be Distance Learning

"...why the ADA doesn't apply to you." - No idea

"...equal to teaching two f2f classes..." - OK, face to face

"...an academic in HE for 25 years..." - Health Education, Human Ergonomics, Home Education, Hydrogen Exploration....? I know it could well be Higher Education; but what about a visitor from Uigur or Venezuela or Hungary whose English is a bit more basic than mine. Would he or she know?

Apart form that off-topic whine, thanks for a very interesting thread!

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