I’ve been following all of the recent buzz about MOOCs and trying to put it in the context of continued criticisms of online learning. The more I read from the critics, especially op-eds like The Trouble With Online Education from the New York Times, the more I realize that some of the challenge in understanding online education is that online courses and programs are extremely diverse in their approach and delivery and, thus, in stimulating student engagement. I have come to believe that many of the critics have only had experiences with certain approaches, all of which seem to have neglected meaningful student interactions with other students and faculty – in other words, I think they just haven’t seen “good” online courses.
My perspective about online ed comes from my own educational experience and my semesters teaching a face-to-face (F2F) course that used blogging to increase student participation outside of the classroom. My first Masters, from LSU, was almost ideally traditional – the small program with F2F classes and my assistantship created a learning environment where I worked with and knew the faculty and had more than one class with most of the students. My second Masters, from UMUC, was completely online (gasp!) – I never set foot on campus and never saw a faculty member or student in person until graduation day. Despite significant differences between these two environments, I can say that UMUC’s program involved as much, and often more, meaningful “classroom” interactions as my LSU degree (which, to be clear, offered a lot of meaningful interactions).
How is this possible? Isn’t online education “a monologue and not a real dialogue” as argued in The Trouble With Online Education? When done poorly, yes – but the same can be said about many F2F classes (hence the classic “sage on the stage” complaint). When done well, as with the vast majority of my classes at UMUC, there can be real dialogue between students and faculty.
Beyond group assignments, which are entirely possible in online courses, given chat and shared document features, a major component of creating dialogue is the effective use of discussions (either forums or via blogging). MOOCs I have seen (isn’t that a new age country song?) and many a discussion board I have witnessed as an embedded librarian essentially provide optional spaces for students to ask questions about course material and assignments. Contrast this approach with weekly discussion forums with questions from the faculty asking for feedback and/or additional research on topics from the course material – forums requiring substantive responses from students to the original question and substantive comments to other student responses, with the faculty member participating and offering clarification and points to consider – forums where participation and quality of content is a significant part of the final grade. The former seems no different or more engaging than asking students if they have any questions after a long lecture. The latter creates the “intellectual community” with give and take between students and faculty that is so lauded in great F2F courses and supposedly sorely missing from online education.
Almost all of my courses at UMUC included the latter approach and I was surprised at how well it “mimicked” the F2F environment. With weekly discussions and group work, I got to know the other students in my classes in much the same way I knew students in F2F classrooms – the personalities and predilections of my fellow students came through in their numerous posts, so much so that there were even students who got on my nerves just like in F2F classes (you know, the one student who always complains about assignments and the other one who goes on and on about nothing, using the same examples?). The only difference in my online courses was that I had to hear from every student – there is no sitting quietly in the back of the class during discussion time when posts are a requirement for your grade.
I recognize that many, many online courses and programs are not this great. And I think there is a lot to be said against online as the silver bullet: in a quest for cost savings and revenue, packing online courses with too many students seems to be almost too tempting for many administrators; and online is certainly not right for every student or every class or content area (Dean Dad in MOOCs from Here makes some excellent points about the difficulties of online education for many demographics of community college students).
I just hope that many critics can come to see that online education isn’t a monolith and that there are many ways to provide quality educational experiences online. My fear with the popularity of MOOCs, with class sizes that make student and faculty interaction almost impossible, is that they will become the representative of online education. I wish the critics of online ed could sit in on some of the great online classes I have taken – I truly think their opinion would change.