Online Education and Its Discontents

A good deal of my course work over the last couple of years has been conducted in online environments. My university offers three types of courses: face-to-face courses, hybrid courses with online and face-to-face components, and fully online course. The majority of my courses have been either hybrid or fully online. On the whole, I’ve not been pleased. This is not necessarily an indictment of the professors who have supervised these courses. It is true that some have been better executed than others, but even the best have been a disappointment despite the professor’s best efforts.

I’m not sure how typical my estimation of online education may be, but The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that the growth of online courses has slowed and may be approaching a plateau. Here are some of the findings of the survey of more than 2,500 institutions of higher education:

  • An online course is now part of the experience of 31% of all students
  • Enrollment in online courses grew by 10%, considerably less than last year’s 21%
  • 67% of academic leaders rated online education as the same or superior to face-to-face learning
  • Fewer than one-third of chief academic officers feel their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years.”

For my part, and take this with a grain of salt, I suspect that “academic leaders” may be driven by considerations that have less to do with quality education than with other benefits that may arise from the implementation of online classes. More online classes, for example, mean growing the student body without necessarily expanding the physical plant which is always an expensive venture.

Online classes do confer certain benefits on students, of course, flexibility being only the most obvious. Again, though, I wonder how many of these benefits are related to the actual educational quality of the online experience. I realize that face-to-face classes in many instances will also leave much to be desired, but based on my limited experience, I’ll take an imperfect face-to-face class over an ideal online class in most cases.

Ultimately, I attribute this to the manner in which the medium abstracts the body from the learning experience. In the next day or two I’ll be posting some more reflections on the topic. If you have had any experiences as either a student or a teacher in an online environment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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