The debate over how online courses compare with face-to-face ones is old. But readers were quick to re-engage it in response to a Chronicle article today that reported on the findings of a major survey of faculty views about online education.
The survey found large-scale faculty engagement with online teaching but also broad suspicion about its effectiveness. Even among professors who have taught online, it reported, nearly half think online learning is either inferior or somewhat inferior to classroom learning. The study also described the amount of time it takes to teach and develop online courses as a significant obstacle.
One reader wrote about reasons for teaching online in the past: student demand, a focus by the administration, even a sense that getting involved could ensure quality. But this reader decided to stop teaching online in the spring after six years of consistent online instruction:
“I am burned out on teaching online. It consumes enormous amounts of time and is not as personally rewarding as face-to-face courses. Teaching online is like teaching without the fun. It is all paperwork, discussion boards, and e-mails. I have decided that I would rather spend my time in front of a class than in front of a computer.”
Some readers came to the defense of online education. They argued that the technology made it easier to evaluate the quality of online classes compared with face-to-face ones. They accused The Chronicle of an “editorial slant against online ed.” They pointed to other studies like a recent Education Department report. One of them opined that, “Properly done, online education can run circles around any other mode of instruction”:
“It can all be done economically, at the speed of light, with all the bells-and-whistles, with dazzling hyperlinks, with great audio, with polling, with great interaction and (best of all) with killer visuals. Do the decent thing, on-site: go away. Some of your brick-and-mortar campuses will make great monasteries. Others can be converted into office space, into section eight or elderly housing, or even be paved over for parking. … “
One reader described “quality” as “a very subjective term”:
“If faculty members are dissatisfied with the conditions under which they teach online, then it is natural to feel that the online environment is inferior. Although Sloan-C is one of the better sources for research in e-learning, this study must be recognized for what it is: an opinion poll showing that many faculty feel that they are not being well supported in their online teaching. The most important determinants of online learning quality are the learner outcomes/student achievement, which is not what this study measures.”
And another stressed that “the common denominator in quality courses is not the mode of delivery but the design of the course”:
“I have taught F2F courses and been frustrated with the difficulty I’ve had getting students to open up and share. This semester I’m teaching online for the first time and am thoroughly enjoying the kind of thoughtful, open discussions and sharing that I find rare in my F2F courses. There are deficiencies in online learning just as there are deficiencies in F2F learning. As educators, we need to put our energy into designing and developing quality content that allows our students to think critically and become lifelong learners no matter the delivery method.”
Another carried the conversation into the subject of grading:
“‘Cause and Effect: Instrumental variables help to isolate causal relationships, but they can be taken too far,’” The Economist, August 15-21, 2009, Page 68. It is often the case that distance education courses are taught by nontenured instructors, and nontenured instructors may be easier with respect to grading than tenured faculty because they are even more in need of strong teaching evaluations — so as to not lose their jobs. The problem may have nothing whatsoever to do with online versus onsite education — ergo misconstrued causality.”
But another was alarmed by the finding that so many professors who have taught online feel the quality is somehow inferior:
“Given the cognitive dissonance involved in an instructor teaching an online course admitting that any aspect of it is ‘inferior’ (a very powerful word emotionally), the fact that as many as 48 percent could overcome the dissonance to admit consciously to themselves, much less to someone else, that the outcome/effectiveness is ‘inferior’ should be ringing very loud alarm bells about what’s happening. I would have found it of great concern in that regard if even 20 percent of those who actually teach online admitted openly it was inferior (for the students, aside from the workload/working conditions issue for the instructor), much less 48 percent! Perhaps it’s naive of me to think most instructors have a strong enough professional ethic to experience cognitive dissonance over admitting that they’re delivering an inferior learning experience to their students, but I don’t think so.”
Still another made it personal:
“You are going in for major heart surgery. How many of you want the cardiologist to have gotten his/her degrees from excellent online education program? The IRS is prosecuting you in a major tax-fraud case, one that may bring jail time? How many of you want your attorney to have gotten his/her degrees from excellent online education programs? Right.”