Concerning Online Education

This is taken from an email I wrote to a friend of mine:

I am very nervous about what will happen to education in the future. Online schools are cheaper and allow students to progress at their own pace, but they do not build relationships, improve social skills, or react flexibly/instantaneously/creatively to student struggles. Furthermore, the fact that online courses are so popular is an indictment of current schooling norms – if teachers are just information distribution centers (ie: lecture and powerpoint) then online info distribution replaces them easily and effectively. However, if teachers are actively pushing student thinking, forcing them to explain, questioning their decisions, providing real world situations and scaffolding student learning, then the online version cannot replace teachers. Unfortunately, most teachers are fact oriented rather than critical thinking oriented.

My fear is that education is too far gone from the goal of creating critical thinkers and so entrenched in a system of hoop jumping (memorize, regurgitate, repeat) that modifying those hoops for a digital world makes sense – it is cheaper and faster. Many people will say online systems can react (but usually that reaction is simply providing an easier or more difficult fact based question). A machine cannot assess true creativity/ingenuity. Others might argue that message boards or social media can allow for teacher-student interaction. True, but the economic push will be to have one teacher for several hundred students, making it impossible for anything but “hoop jumping”. Not to mention that a lack of true relationship will hinder any teachers ability to meet ALL of their students learning needs. We need to be aware of where we are going. The decisions educators make now will have drastic effects on the cultures of tomorrow. Instead of looking to technology for salvation, perhaps we ought to be asking what we have done wrong in the past that makes online education now so enticing...and what can we do to ensure the "teacher" remains a critical part of education.

I want to be clear, I am NOT anti-technology, but I AM anti-hoop jumping the curriculum.


  1. Hey Jerrid. Lots of good stuff here. I agree with your final statement about "anti-hoop jumping the curriculum." You probably realize this and just didn't articulate it in your post, but not all online education involves merely "information distribution." An example of this is the hybrid online and f2f graduate program I recently finished at ISU. Think about the most engaging conversations you've had on Twitter, multiply it by 2 and eliminate the 140 character limit. Throw in a threaded format and I think you'd agree that the conversations in these online classes were as deep as any seen in a f2f classroom. This was not only my take, but also the faculty's take after five years of teaching in this format. The "teacher" was a big part of the courses which I think is where you're going. My point is that online education doesn't always have to look like you've described it. If done well (and I tend to agree, this my example is far from typical), it can help bridge geographical gaps and at the same time maintain a high level of integrity.

  2. Matt, I completely agree. But would argue that the online format is more predisposed to "information distribution". In either case, that mentality must be worked against.

    Also, I am unsure if you took the very best online instruction it could come close to the very best face to face instruction. There is always something missing when go online. Of course the very best online instruction is better than mediocre face to face!

    Your points about conquering distance are well taken, but I worry that distance won't be driving factor of move to online, but cost & efficiency. Both of which do not belong in making sound educational decisions.

  3. thanks for the post and comments guys. i want more to think about these things.

    to me a huge roadblock in student engagement (for 7 hrs a day) is our inability to differentiate/tailor - enough.

    web access is the potential for every kid in my class to have an individual tutor -- individual tailoring. it is also the potential for each kid to have/form a group centered around their passion - not around my agenda. much more student buy-in in that scenario.

    the unlimited access to data/research/projects/etc is cake. the efficiency is unmatched.

    the personal relationships that can exist (tutor/peer/group member) because of the exponential ginomormity of your volunteer pool - i couldn't match - 1 on 30. especiall not 1 on 150.

    oh - and the cost - maine claims $250 per student - for everything.

  4. Jerrid,
    I think I see your point about quality f2f instruction as an ideal that online instruction cannot parallel. I wonder if this is because f2f instruction has been around much longer, we've had more time to dissect it and we all grew up learning from/with it. In comparison, online instruction (at least via the internet) is much "younger" with a proportionally smaller research base. I believe there are things that can be done in an online format that cannot be done in a f2f format. (Note: I am by no means an expert in this field, but merely pointing out examples from my own experiences teaching, learning and reading about the topic). For example, using Moodle a discussion can be setup so that students must answer a question first on their own before reading others' responses. Imagine if EVERY single one of your students had that kind of thinking time and could individually respond before engaging in a whole or small group discussion. Also, I also found that the online format allowed me (again, this is my own experience) to wake up at 2am after falling asleep thinking about the most recent threaded discussion. Because of the format and flexibility, I was able to literally "be in class" and participate at any given time. Don't we wish our students had the same opportunities and motivation? I'm guessing that my own experiences noted above are open for blitzing, because they cannot be generalized for every student and especially for any online environment/class, but I do still feel that there is unique value that has really yet to be uncovered in online instruction. I'm curious to know (and this isn't meant to cast a thorn your way), Jerrid, what, if any, online classes you've taught or taken? I have had several mediocre-at-best-information-distruction courses, too, but like so many f2f classes I've also been a part of, there's typically a diamond in the rough.

  5. While I can understand your argument I think that as Matt mentions, there are many models for online education.

    When you look at it through the connectivism lens, an online class, like CCK08 (, online learning has the opportunity to bring students together from around the world to not only think crictically but more importantly, learn through the connections they develop will working with their peers and teachers.

    This model can and is being developed at the secondary level. There are classes that focus on understanding that we must, like you said, develop an environment where students must think about the greater world, and explain themselves.

    While we must be careful in how we design them, online learning has the potential to help our students make connections that a physical classrooom could not.

  6. Jerrid,
    You make very valid points and these are things we should be thinking about now. I do not think the teacher is going away anytime soon. As you mentioned, there are many things that can not be done with a computer but we do need to take advantage of those things that technology can do well. I agree with Monika in that it may provide, ironically enough, more individual tutoring for students who may need the extra help to keep up. I do not buy in to the student completely creating their own curriculum without a basic foundation through the guidance of a teacher. At this point, that guidance can take place very effectively online but so far it has only be done with students who have already spent over 12 years in a traditional classroom.

  7. Hi Jerrid,
    I think the mistake many of us make is to assume that online setups are going to reduce the timeload per student significantly, so that the student-teacher ratio will rise. In fact, I think the oposite is the case. Anyone who has spent time videoconferencing or chatting will know that conversations generally take longer online. Since there is simply no way to "automate" good student-teacher relationships, keeping up good quality means a greater, not a smaller investment overall. So if the goal is quality home education/ distance learning, the price has got to be right. And that just isn't happening. So I agree, we have reason to worry.

  8. Wow, great discussion. This is an area of education that I have been thinking about a lot over the past few years. I've been posting a lot about it on my blog too. I started out as a firm believer in online education. I still am, but I am starting to think that the hybrid model is better. As many have pointed out, there is no reason a student needs to sit in my class for me to lecture. That type of learning (some of which is needed) should be digitized. The dynamic types of learning (labs, discussion, debate, etc) can remain f2f. As in all things, there is a balance.