By: Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D
Prof. Mark Edmundson’s July 12, 2012 op-ed article in the New York Times, “The Trouble With Online Education,” discounts the power and excitement of online education, its latest iterations in interactive learning, and its ability to create an online community of learners that provides powerful and transformational learning opportunities.
Prof. Edmundson avers that only in a traditional classroom setting can a teacher know what his students bring to the table and deliver the corresponding factual knowledge via proper techniques. Having served both as a classroom teacher and an online instructor at the university level, and having taught and developed many online courses, I can testify to the fact that online learning is sometimes more powerful, requires more energy and effort, and promotes deeper learning on the part of students than a traditional once or twice a week classroom session or lecture. Prof. Edmundson’s description of online learning as simply a bunch of prerecorded talking heads lacks knowledge of state-of-the-art online learning practices and the ability of online instructors to generate deep thinking, critical analysis, and application to real-world situations.
In a good, interactive online learning situation, students are required to read, analyze, and most importantly write about all the materials they are studying. No one in a regular classroom raises his or her hand and speaks for three paragraphs. But in the online setting, a student may write three or four paragraphs in answer to an instructor’s question or request for deeper analysis, thus revealing critical thinking skills, writing ability, and metacognitive processes.
Going into a classroom once a week to deliver your lecture or interactive discussion is a far easier task than checking daily on such posts from your online students and responding to them individually or collectively with comments, critique, and fine-tuning of their understanding of the material. Likewise, feedback in the online medium is often much more direct and timely than the process of turning in an assignment to a professor and not getting it back for a week or two with comments and grades. Much research has shown that the timeliness of feedback goes a long way to affecting learning and behavioral change.
As far as creating a community of learners, I have found that the online situation creates quite a close relationship amongst colleagues in the class. It also brings together students from all over the world who could not otherwise access the particular course, including full-time working professionals who can study one course at a time online, in the evenings, at lunch, or weekends to improve their careers and enhance professional growth. I have conducted all kinds of online courses where students from Alaska to Israel participate in an asynchronous manner which invites a conversation across time zones amongst learners and instructor.
One of the requirements that most online instructors outline in their syllabi is the importance of posting comments in response to the instructor’s material, and posting comments in response to fellow student’s understandings and contributions. That results in a much deeper peer-to-peer, cross-class discussion than can ever take place in the limited time of a once or twice a week on campus course. Students can really support as well as critique each other under the watchful eye of a caring instructor. It allows me to group them in small groups so they can work collaboratively, and requires them to the actively engage in learning, rather than passively sit back and listen to the sage on the stage do most of the talking and lecturing. A large lecture cannot hope to create intellectual community better than a focused online learning experience where students have an obligation to be in constant response to each other.
Prof. Edmundson’s concern that online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor is also misguided. I can post general comments or direct a particular comment privately to a particular student, allowing me to individualize, in a sensitive and caring way, the needs of each student in my class. If I see a student struggling to understand the concept or she misunderstands a reading or idea, I can communicate with that student privately with remediation or extra conversation. On campus, that can only happen when the student comes the professor’s office, which in itself requires scheduling time and the willingness of both parties to encounter the other, not always an easy situation for many students who can be intimidated by the knowledge level and prestige of their professors.
Prof. Edmundson is a teacher of English and therefore concerned with the close reading of text. As a Jewish educator, I have taught online courses in such areas as methods of teaching prayer, translating Jewish theology into educational settings, leadership and group dynamics, curriculum development — all of which required close reading of either sacred texts or materials from modern research where students had to bring proof of argument, develop critical thinking skills, and analyze complex poetic and philosophical works in order to demonstrate command of the materials being studied online. I have made use of multimedia materials, film clips, TED Talks, pointed students to other websites, and provided for student work to be displayed on wiki sites so that every member of the class can view, understand, and critique each other’s work.
I have taught on campus and online and, as any other university professor, read carefully the end-of-semester student evaluations I get from my students. I have seen no difference in appreciation and positive feedback between on campus and online students, and have often received the same critique from both groups as to any weaknesses in my approach. The assessment vehicles used in the classroom or online are aimed at making sure that the material is indeed learned, and because online courses are very structured and laid out in advance, the professor cannot wing it. We spend a great deal of time mounting the course, bringing together a variety of tools and multimedia materials which take time and patience. Online courses have clear guiding goals and learning outcomes which we wish our students to achieve. Oversight organizations like Middle States require the outlining of rubrics to help students understand how they will be assessed on clearly stated goals and learning outcomes This is probably no different than what most universities are now moving to in their on campus instruction, and so there is all the more reason to trust online learning as a most valuable and helpful form of delivering instruction to hungry students who want to be part of an engaged, active learning, personal meaning making way of studying.
Dr. Steven M. Brown is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation