Online Learning: Reaching Out to the Skeptics

Brian Taylor

September 18, 2009

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.