In Defense of Online Teaching and Learning…


Very very late last night, I was in my office working through some GIS training modules.  This set me to thinking about a number of the conversations that have animated the blogosphere of late—notable among them the debate over online education.  There are quite a number of vocal opponents of online education amongst historians.  At one point it had seemed counterintuitive to me that you might find some of them blogging!  It seemed to me to suggest that the internet had become a place where established scholars could engage in exchange and discussion and learn from one another, but somehow the medium was inappropriate for engaging our students in similar discourse?  But I fully recognize that there is more to it than that, and I would go so far as to concede that the detractors of online education have some perfectly legitimate concerns.  Jonathan Rees has been prolific in articulating them at his blog, More or Less Bunk, which, despite my propensity to disagree with him, has been in our Blogroll for some time.  Other critiques, some explicit, some less so emerge in posts and comments at Tenured Radical and Historiann as well.

So the basic narrative goes that online education is coming to steal our children.  Well, more specifically I guess, it is coming to destroy liberal education as we know it and put us all out of work.  Oh, and those of us in the humanities will lead the way to the unemployment lines, as MA wielding adjuncts and their computer programmer friends settle into those endowed and now empty chairs.  The scenario neither frightens nor compels me, and I don’t think it’s just because I have, literally and figuratively, nothing to lose.

As we’ve positioned ourselves and our blog in earlier posts (see Portage Ahead, in particular) we are interested in the process, prospects, and problems of navigating the field as advanced grad students and early career academics do.  With that in mind, online education presents a significant quandary.  Do we stand with its detractors and attempt to improve future job prospects by resisting it?  Or do we, as some would describe it, take a hand in our own oppression by training ourselves to teach online—making ourselves in the process more versatile, and in more and more applicant pools, more attractive candidates?  Is it short-sighted to buy into this trend?  Or is it strategic and savvy to be mindful of emerging trends and position yourself to take full advantage?  I think it’s pretty clear where I come down.

Given some of the other conversations gaining steam and attention around the discipline, the academy, and the academic blogosphere though, this debate seems a bit out of step.  On the one hand the academy seems gung ho to embrace digital history and digital humanities and the increased use of digital tools to not only drive historical analysis but also broaden our options for the delivery of findings.  Is not teaching one of our outlets for the delivery of findings?  If we’re willing to consider blogs, online journals, portals, and digital archives as a means to reach a new and broader audience, why do we continue to place our students outside of that nebulous population we call an “audience”?  Maybe a bigger and better question is why do we cling so fervently to this sense of separation between our research objectives and our teaching responsibilities?  Our research inevitably informs our teaching and vice versa—so shouldn’t our openness to new technologies in one aspect of our professional lives be consistent with the other?

Additionally though, we have conversations going on about the actual effectiveness of our conventional approaches to teaching and learning.  The argument against online learning begins from the assumption that it saps the good from existing conventions—that the brick and mortar classroom and face-to-face interaction is the superior approach.  But these conventions are challenged, and rightly so, at every turn.  Rees himself, not all that long ago, featured a great piece on his blog about dumping the coverage model for the history survey.  Historiann, in a recent comment thread, toyed with the notion of dumping the survey altogether.  We seem to have reached a point where we can acknowledge that the conventions of higher education don’t serve all learners equally and don’t serve some learners particularly well.  At what point do we arrive at the same conclusion for online approaches?  Some learners thrive in online fora.  Some do not.  And just like in the classroom, there are educators who do a fantastic job of presenting material meaningfully and coherently to their audience, and others who, well, do not.  But I think it’s a bit disingenuous to attack a premise in one argument while clinging to it in another.

I’ve been reworking a chapter about early to mid-nineteenth century marine science that attempts to say something about the state of scientific consciousness in coastal communities of New England and the Maritimes during that period.  Among the developments I look at are the mechanics institutes and lyceum movements, which contributed mightily to the availability and popularity of public lectures.  Part of the impetus behind the development of professional associations and the creation of disciplines in the sciences and throughout the academy was a sense of the need to prevent “quackery” from being disseminated through such lectures.  The popularity of the form made it marketable, and attractive to anyone who might seek to turn a profit from limited research and more eloquence than actual knowledge.  While the disciplines and professional associations did not eliminate stupidity, and never will, they have proven to be remarkably adept gate keepers of merit and credibility through the advent of an awful lot of technology.  I see no evidence of their willingness to abandon that role in the face of digital communications, and I think the discussions we see week after week on Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed blogs support this.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been putting myself through training courses on the ESRI website to better understand GIS and lay the groundwork for moving my research into GIS tools so that I can better visualize, interpret, manipulate, and present my work spatially.  The course I’m currently taking is free.  When I complete it I will have a certification that I can put on my CV to tout a degree (albeit a modest one) of expertise.  The course itself features no instructor interaction.  My progress is assessed on the basis of multiple choice questions at the end of each section.  I can take as much or as little time as I want to complete the modules.  To historians I’m sure this sounds like the very embodiment of the “problem.”  But here’s the thing:  I’m learning.  I’m learning not only how to manipulate a computer program, but I’m learning the conceptual framework upon which that program is created.  I walked home from the office the other night thinking about how maps can manipulate features, attributes, and relationships to tell stories and present arguments, just as I do with material pulled from archives.  I’m not even ready to start using the tool yet, but already it is informing how I think about my own work.  Is this course design perfect?  Of course not.  But it is well designed for what it is.  It serves the purpose for which it was created.  It facilitates learning for people with a broad range of objectives for learning GIS.  Not everyone taking this course is looking to use the tool and the knowledge gained to inform historical research.  As you well know, not everyone in your history classes, online or face-to-face, want to be historians either.

I can’t think of any industry that allows its workers to just ignore new technology when it’s made available.  Workers continually retrain and retool themselves to operate in a modern, ever-dynamic workplace (though, granted, they spend their smoke breaks bitching and moaning about how management doesn’t “get it”).  If we want the workers of the future to continue to see college as the foundation for a successful career in a future workplace we cannot yet clearly define, isn’t resistance to this concept the last thing we want to be modeling?  Much as the emerging academic community of the late nineteenth century embraced the lecture and set the terms and benchmarks for quality and academic rigor, shouldn’t we now be leading the way into digital technologies—retooling ourselves to best understand and harness those capabilities so that we can keep quackery at bay and create new and better means for growing and disseminating knowledge?

Just like regular courses, online courses come in all shapes, sizes, and formats.  Let’s stop talking about them as though they are some kind of monolithic, one-size-fits-all solution proposed by administrators to keep our faculties small and their paychecks big.  The online courses I’ve taught have been rich in discussion, writing intensive, and the only multiple choice and robo-grading that was used was on the course evals.  And the caps for my online courses, by the way, have been the lowest caps I’ve ever encountered.

The conventional classroom is a flawed space.  We should continue working to understand those flaws and adapt improvements.  Teaching that is done in that space spans a wide spectrum in terms of quality—we should be forever seeking to improve it.  Virtual spaces and online teaching done in them is similarly imperfect.  Ignoring it will not make it meet its challenges and obligations any better.  It won’t make it go away either.  Embracing it with a critical eye and acknowledging its place in the landscape of teaching and learning will encourage colleagues to adapt new and better techniques and approaches.  Let’s stop pretending, for the purposes of debasing online learning, that conventional methods are perfect.  And let’s stop conflating our conversations about MOOCs, robo-grading, over-dependence on adjuncts, and frustrations with online curricula into one angst-ridden non-debate, and begin instead to open some more measured discussions about how to harness technology and manipulate spaces, messages, arguments, and knowledge to greater effect.  This has become part of our workplace and the smoke break is over.

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13 thoughts on “In Defense of Online Teaching and Learning…

  1. I would never dump the history survey course. I think that that is ridiculous. Historians need to make choices and stitch together a grand narrative, even if they risk glossing over complex problems, even if their narrative can be broken down and pulled apart, exposing the historian’s presuppositions (come to think of it, why not both construct and deconstruct our narratives? why not construct and deconstruct our narratives and do it with our students?). Think of the wonderful political and ethical results if the average American could accomplish these things.

    I think that online courses or an online component to a face-to-face course can work amazingly well—here at U-W, for example, most professors require some sort of written response to the weekly readings to be posted on the electronic bulletin board. Everyone is supposed to read these responses, take notes, etc. And, as a result, much of the preliminary hashing out of ideas that graduate students love to do has already been done before going to class. Students come in to class ready for some heavy intellectual lifting.

    I don’t, in other words, see why their needs to be a choice EITHER between a face-to-face classroom setting OR an online setting.

    Nevertheless, I do and will always privilege face-to-face interaction. I will always consider the online course a supplement to what I would call, for lack of better words, reality. Online teaching and online learning are supplements because I believe that physical presence is more powerful and ultimately more compelling than any online (or electronic) experience. A teacher’s smile, the inflections of their voice, their movements, the cadence of their speech. These are what I remember. And, nothing beats holding paper in my hands, nothing strikes me more than reading an exquisitely written passage or sentence out loud—in the presence of other people. Don’t get me wrong, I love silence and being alone as the next misfit. Actually, I really, really love being left alone. Love it. I also love community, though. And, by community, I mean that process through which one attunes one’s self, not to representations of others—not to their emoticons—, but to their very being-in-the-world. It’s not so much that I think that this attunement can never occur on electronic devices, it is simply very rare. A computer screen offers us representations of the world, but never provides the fullness, the plenitude, the richness of material, of carnal, reality.

    -Greg

    • I have also taken graduate classes that were this type of hybrid format (not in history at UMaine but in Higher Ed). This format is fantastic. As you say Greg, lots of stuff gets hashed out and, for me anyway, I understand things better once I write them out and synthesize. It was also nice to get a sense of where everyone else is at BEFORE the precious 2 hours in seminar. Finally this component ensured that everyone was prepared beforehand. I have read research that concludes that hybrid models (however that works best given discipline, institution type and level) is more effective than f2f or online alone. I loved taking hybrid classes in Ed. I also loved that there are all kinds of hybrids. I also loved TEACHING a hybrid. class ran for 15 week semester and we met f2f for 2.5 hours 7 times over semester. Rest of time we were online. Class was a phenomenal success in my opinion (and students loved it).

      I once took a graduate level online class which may have been the most useless experience of my life. Instructor was not prepared for the challenges of online teaching nor was she thinking through how best to connect with students. She clearly had zero training in an online format and I genuinely felt badly for her as she was really struggling. It was a grad class so students were advanced and picked up much of the slack but I often think back on it when I am constructing my own online classes.

      I also agree that eliminating surveys is a bad idea. I remember as a student I didn’t love surveys but now I LOVE teaching them. Give me 120 students in an auditorium any day and I am happy :)

  2. Over here we have something called the Open University, which used to base a lot of its teaching on programmes shown late at night but now tends to focus more on online teaching. It is all distance learning however. You can take lots of different modules and degrees including the sciences. For practical aspects you can spend a week or two at a summer school at a university lab somewhere in the country. More courses (I think) are done online through online videos and sending work off to tutors etc. I think the OU works very well, and distance learning, whilst offering its own challenges can be a great (and practical) way to learn. If you are not, for whatever reason, able to attend a university in person or full time, distance learning is a good way to do it.

    With cuts everywhere at the moment and loads of people going for one job and thus people trying to enhance their skills I think distance learning is good and innovative way of teaching. You need to be decent on a computer – or at least have a computer – but otherwise it can offer something different.

    • Access to the basic tools is a good point Mark. Obviously not everyone has access to a computer and some people don’t have the basic skills even if they did have access to a computer. There are still parts of Maine and many other rural state in the U.S. where connection speed is slow. DL provides more access but there are additional barriers.

      I teach a bunch of online class each year and at the outset tell students they need access to a computer (their own, on campus, at a public library) with a decent connection. As for people that are new to computers…I have one or two in every class, usually older students, often returning to school. In my experience they catch on quickly. I can’t think of many jobs today that do not require employees to have a basic set of knowledge including the aptitude to learn new computer programs.

      One related point. I also have online components in EVERY face to face class I teach. At UMaine we use Blackboard. In my small face to face upper level history seminar and in my huge US History survey class students complete some work online. One of the learning goals of each class I teach is that students will leave having a basic understanding of how to use a learning management system (in this case Blackboard). In all my classes students access material online, participate in discussions online and contact with me online in addition to what we do in class. I like using an online component in f2f classes because it extends the class beyond the 50 min. block three times a week. Discussion posts are due on days the class doesn’t meet and students access content all week long. I find this to be a very useful way to not only manage content but communicate with students (who are required to check in daily). Students by and large have no problem with this and are doing similar things across the curriculum. Many also arrive with some Blackboard familiarity as they used it in high school (not sure how it is used in the high school curriculum). Students at UMaine take f2f, online and hybrid classes depending on needs and availability. It is the same at the local community college and I dare say it is the same around the country.

      • I taught (by taught in this case I meant programme was online computer programme but I was on hand to provide assistance) a basic computer course last year when I was working in a library (before starting my PhD) and most people were retired. They learnt pretty quickly however.

        Outside of the OU distance learning isn’t really done much anymore. Neither are night classes, except at institutions like Birkbeck in London which specialises in part time and evening programmes. Perhaps the lack of distance learning programmes is because the OU is so established and has been going for about 50 years or sone (maybe a little less – it started I think in the 1960s).

        I understand your point about if a teacher is at the front of class, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have access to the students. I think its all very interesting, and that it is a good way to learn (and might increase in the future) due to our busy society.

  3. Also with students themselves increasingly becoming consumers, and dictating exactly what they want and expect, distance learning can open up new avenues of study.

    • I agree that distance learning can open up new avenues of study. However, I stand by my above comment about the need for and importance of the physical presence of the professor/teacher for imparting knowledge. I also think that the opposition between distance learning and presence-base learning maps onto a common critique/warning that humanists, by giving into the market-based view of learning (i.e. students viewing themselves primarily and in some cases solely as consumers and administration cutting down on costs by eliminating real classroom experience and encouraging more and more distance learning courses), are literally undermining themselves and what they love. It’s kinda like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. It’s a slippery slope and I’m not sure if and when “we” have crossed the line. I know that my position sounds rather conservative, perhaps even reactionary. It probably is. Nevertheless, we’re humans dammit and we deserve some humanity.

      • We sure do deserve some humanity :) I would add though that just because there is a human in front of the room doesn’t necessarily mean there is human contact with students. By the same token, just because I never see my online students in person doesn’t mean we don’t have a personal connection. Obviously I don’t connect with all my students f2f or online and maybe I connect more/less than other instructors but I work very hard to connect with them whether virtually or in real life.

        At the instructor end there is a steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out what communication means in an online world. It isn’t the same as in the f2f world. Context, gesture, inflection, humor…they don’t translate all that well. It took me a lot of practice to figure out how to communicate effectively in online classes. I actually did research on how to effectively reply to emails, posts, questions etc. This kind of basic knowledge on how to interact and write for a virtual audience has made me a better instructor in my f2f classes I think.

  4. There are multiple issues here. I joined the history profession just when everybody else did. My PhD and 50 cents would get me a cup of coffee back then – now it takes a dollar! So I went into Continuing Education Admin, then customer service, and retired pushing grocery carts. I am more than happy to grab the crumbs that fall from the academic table. Is that ethical? I would pay to teach, if I could afford it!

    The economics of higher education beats me! Pay at a private University is less than teaching third grade in public school, yet tuition is well beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. And why is it that non-profit institutions are losing money while for-profit schools are making money hand over fist? If it wasn’t for adjuncts, more of us might have chairs, but most of us would still be driving cabs. On the other hand, the shift from traditional to nontraditional students, from students as products to students as customers is a positive one. But the price is minumum salary adjuncts.

    Certainly, I would prefer to teach in a real classroom. But not everybody can make it to class, and this avenue works for them. Preparation is a terrific load up front. Everything has to be written in advance. You can’t just stand up there and pontificate from an outline. I’ve spent a year working on a course that was cancelled, may never run, and for which I may never be paid! There is no stopping someone else running my course with their eyes closed and collecting for it. But you can bring a lot of resources into the class that would never fit on the AV cart! You can’t see the whites of their eyes, but nobody can sit in the back of the class without saying anything either.

    Do on-line students learn as much as in-class students? Probably, if they take initiative and make an honest effort. But that’s the same anywhere. Perhaps some EdD will do a thesis on it. It’s the wild west on-line. Some programs are sloppy or even fraudulent, while others are unreasonably difficult, no doubt. Students tend to conform to a dumb-bell curve: some brilliant and others looking for an easy ride of facebook congeniality. But thar’s gold in them thar hills!

  5. Wow, so much in this thread to respond to! Thanks to Mark, Greg and David, and of course Katherine, for some great thoughts. I’ll leave aside commentary on the survey because I use it in the post merely as an example of a convention, something central to our discipline, that is under scrutiny and prone to innovation, adaptation and critique. And Historiann floats the idea very informally to be provocative, in a thread, linked in the post, that is well worth a read. I credit her for that–that’s precisely what our blogs are for! But just as a preview of coming attractions, I’ll say to Greg and Katherine: I’m not sure I agree with you!

    I think the fact that both anecdotal experience and more scientific research are finding that hybrid courses work best at promoting learning should tell us that there is value in both of the approaches that come together to create the hybrid. I don’t disagree with Greg that there is great value in a physical presence and the dynamic between instructor and student playing out in real time. But clearly there is some considerable value to online approaches as well otherwise the combination of the two would not succeed as well as it appears to. Considering that the former approach has been tested and refined for, well, millenia, and the latter is inching up on a decade or so, I’m confident both can and will continue to enhance their effectiveness both separately and in combination.

    The central issue to me seems to be one of access. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of moving parts and I don’t understand it any better than David does, but the fact of the matter is we’ve priced a lot of people out of the game when it comes to higher education. And if we haven’t made it altogether inaccessible, we’ve severely constricted access by forcing students into financial circumstances where they have to work multiple jobs while pursuing what education they can. The spectrum of financial circumstances today’s students face is one I can’t even adequately speculate upon. So yes, administrators clearly are looking for ways to do more with less and make colleges and universities flexible and agile for an uncertain economic future. But they are also looking to solve problems of how to bring quality education to a wider population–and not just for the self-serving reasons faculty tend to attribute to them. Let’s face it, that 120 person survey that Katherine refers to is itself a compromise in the face of the same problem. Clearly we all recognize that 6 Katherines teaching 20 students each in nice intimate classroom settings would be preferable. But we didn’t have 6 Katherines–the economics of another era saw to that. Well, now we have a lot of students who lack the resources and the time to find their way to that room two or three times a week–let alone contemplate the costs associated with living on a residential campus. But we have the technology to bring Katherine to them, and while its a compromise and its far from perfect I think its one well worth making–at least until somebody can show me something better.

    I hear a lot of professors these days talking about the sense of entitlement that students nowadays exhibit. Some of it is immaturity, some of it relates, as Mark and David have acknowledged, to the emergence of the student as a consumer. Frankly if I were cutting the kinds of checks students and their parents now have to, I’d have a hard time not judging every moment of my experience in terms of whether or not it was “worth” it. But to then hear some of those same people either refuse to train for online teaching platforms or offer courses online strikes me as a bit hypocritical. Having tenure, or even a full-time gig doesn’t liberate you from your responsibility as an educator to teach students. And you don’t get to choose your students, you don’t always get to choose your classroom, why should we expect that we’d get to dictate the terms in which the expertise we’re paid for gets delivered? Faculty are very good at underestimating or entirely overlooking the extent to which behavior is modeled. So if your students strike you as acting more entitled than they used to, perhaps some prevailing faculty attitudes have just a little bit to do with that.

  6. While I mentioned and linked to Historiann in the post above, Historiann actually posted a new piece about online education, asking questions about student evaluations and what they may tell us about online teaching more generally, on the same day I posted this one. Her readership is quite a bit larger than ours so her comment thread is similarly longer, but like this one, features some great insights. I wanted to take a minute and unite the two conversations with a link. http://www.historiann.com/2012/06/09/student-evaluations-of-online-courses-rife-with-hostility/
    See, in particular, great thoughts from Katherine and from “Dr. Crazy.”

  7. Pingback: Online Teaching: For Naught or Skill to be Sought? | GradHacker

  8. Pingback: Online Teaching: For Naught or Skill to be Sought? | Life360View.com

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