Brad's Blog

The blog of the OSG Executive Director

My Trouble With Mark Edmundson’s Trouble With Online Education

My guess is that most of us who went to college find ourselves day-dreaming every once in a while about some of the great courses we took.  For me, my mind goes back to Peabody Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, listening to the great Joel Williamson’s musing about Southern history.

Joel was one of those incredibly captivating college professors.  As a student in his class, you imagined yourself not in the lecture hall, but with a small group, sitting on his front porch, drinking sweet tea while he told these unbelievably interesting nuggets of Southern history that illuminated the region’s struggles with race and identity over the last three hundred years.  The class was at his attention for the entire time he spoke.  He joked with us, responded thoughtfully to questions we posed, and made us feel that he was personally invested in our learning. In my mind, his classroom was as good a college lecture course could get.

Thinking about my own personal affection for some of those lectures, I found the central question from last Thursday’s New York Times op-ed from University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson so interesting:

… Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?

Edmundson argues that it cannot be.  For Edmundson, the immediacy of a classroom lecture hall can not be brought online because: 

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

… I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.

I get where Edmundson is coming from in setting this model up as the ideal.  I felt that way about Joel Williamson’s great Southern history course.

And yet, I struggle because this ideal is very much in conflict with what current research tells us about learning, and the ways that online education is creating new research-based ways for learning.  It was at this point in the article that I realized my troubles with Mark Edmundson’s “The Trouble With Online Education.”

There is No “Education of the Very Best Sort”

For Edmundson to claim that there is an ideal classroom for learning in today’s world strikes me as misguided and a bit elitist.  Brain-based research over the last twenty years has showed us that different learners respond better and worse to different types of teaching and learning pedagogical approaches.  That is what works best for one student does not necessarily work best for the next student.  To ignore this research and instead retreat to the classroom lecture model as a definitive ideal is not in keeping with today’s research and understanding of learning.

Moreover, some learning environments are simply not available to many learners.  The type of learning that Edmundson sets as an ideal is inaccessible to most if only for reasons of finance and distance.  If Edmundson’s intent was to “take-down” online education (and that does seem to be his intent), then he must at least acknowledge the very real challenges and obstacles that his ideal sets up.

Online Education Helps Create Personalization

Whereas Edmundson maintains the college lecture model as the ideal, online education has been pushing the envelope over the last ten years to create more and better personalized learning for students, giving students choice in instruction, format, time, learning needs, learning styles, and more.  Students have greater choice and control over what and how they learn, and greater variety of course work from which to choose.  

Edmundson gives high importance to the immediacy of the classroom.  And yet, we know that there are many learners who do not function well in this environment (and not because of a lack of intellect).  Some learners need more time for reflection in order to process and understand the content presented and the questions posed.  Regularly, at the Online School for Girls, we see students who were the reticent “wallflowers” in face-to-face courses become the most vocal participants in online discussions.  It was not that those students did not have anything to say in their face-to-face courses, it was that they needed time and space to articulate their thoughts.  For these students, the online course space is ideal for helping them learn material more fully.

All Online Education Is Not The Same

Beyond that, and importantly, all online learning is not the same.  Edmundson claims that:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

The problem with this argument is that not all online education is as he describes.  Online learning can be project-based; it can incorporate service learning; it can happen in real time; it can demand collaboration; it can have office hours; and, it can be personalized to the needs of particular students.  This is not to say that online learning is always these things, but it can be these things.  For Edumundson to not be aware of that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the field, and thus an inability to be a critic of it.

  • 22 July 2012