Opinion about Online Learning

I’ve retained a strong revulsion for online learning. I have taught several online sections for college courses, and I have become privy to the impetus of administrators and entrepreneurs for promoting online learning in the American education system. The marketing especially has drawn my ire in the past, whether it’s the infamous “college in pajamas” campaign or Shannen Doherty pretending like she’s younger in order to communicate with the desired demographic. Recently, some new commercials promoting online learning for public schools have surfaced, using emotionally-manipulative tactics to convince the public that good old-fashioned learning in a classroom is inefficient, antiquated, and a tradition best left in mothballs.

Online learning! Now that’s the wave of the future!

What seems to escape most people’s attention is how online learning might be a method to eliminate the role of a teacher from the classroom learning experience, which would be just fine for administrators, who are looking for revenue-generating opportunities, cost-cutting of their education budgets, and salary-increasing chances for administrators, who are always looking for a larger slice of the fiscal pie at the expense of the educators.

I’m sure many might presume I am quick to judge and my conclusions are a bit absurd. I have taught online classes, and I worked for an institution, Ivy Tech Community College, that pushed distance learning classes. There is one e-mail that sticks in my mind, from the central office. The subject matter concerned the implementation of a distance-learning program, created by a book publishing company, which advertised learning in college classes without the interference of a pesky teacher. Yep, students could receive college credits by completing a designed online curriculum that primarily offered tech assistance because the teacher had become unnecessary to the learning experience. Students were supposed to inherently understand that the teacher was the reason that they were not succeeding in school, and taking a course without the teacher was the specific marketing approach. There was quite a bit of backlash at Ivy Tech from the teachers, and an administrator responded by sending a snarky e-mail across the state: this was a good revenue-generating opportunity for Ivy Tech, and gosh darn it, we’re going to try it out, no matter what you commerce-ignorant educators have to say about it!

The two commercials that have reinvigorated my disdain for this online learning movement are advertised by an organization called K12 (here and here). The first caters to parents whose children are unhappy in school, where the pace might be too fast or slow for their children. They emphasize how parents and teachers “enthusiastically” endorse the curriculum, which is “exciting” and allows children to “blossom.” If that subjective language does not convince a parent, then they should be happy to learn that there will be no “classroom distractions” to hinder learning. The state-certified teachers, appearing like telemarketers, are better than traditional teachers simply because they utilize technology, with headsets and Excel programs. Online learning is “priceless” compared to traditional face-to-face learning, and, of course, an opinion poll, which we all know is reliable since it has a statistic attached to it, assures parents that 94 percent are satisfied with the online learning experience. The second commercial enhances the message with testimony of a parent, who has been brought to tears over the impressive distance-learning experience for her child…and we all understand how a crying person accompanied by sad piano music authenticates a consumer experience…not at all emotionally manipulative.

I’m not entirely discounting the possibilities of learning online; there is an obvious benefit for saving transportation costs and environmental protection, and the use of technology is an enhancement (though, technology can be used in a face-to-face environment just as easily). I have seen it work (frankly, I’ve made it work out of necessity for my students), but there’s no denying that online-learning and face-to-face learning are two entirely different experiences. I might suggest that there are obvious detractors of distance-learning that are not advertised:

Increased Procrastination—Procrastination of students is always a problem with teaching, but online learning increases it. The idea of an online curriculum is to report an assignment well in advance so that students might have sufficient time to turn it in before a deadline, usually around midnight of the designated day to turn in assignments. Many times, I would monitor a class through the week, waiting for students to submit their e-mails or messages, so I might assist students with any questions about the assignment. I usually received one or two through the week. I learned that the best time to monitor the class’s communications was about two hours prior to the deadline, as the majority of students would wait until the absolute last minute to complete assignments online. More often than not, those e-mails would have pleas for an extension as students often did not leave themselves enough time to complete the assignment.

Increased Forgetfulness—An online course usually has more assignments than would be administered in a face-to-face environment, and students often became overwhelmed at the sheer amount of work they need to accomplish. Since the only method of reminding students about the curriculum is electronic communication, it often became frustrating for both teacher and student. In a face-to-face course, it’s easy enough at the end of class to state, “Okay, here’s what you have to do for next class….” With distance-learning, sending e-mails or posting announcements become difficult, because students often miss the communications, as it is yet another online item that they need to monitor in order to succeed…which brings me to the next item…

Online Communication Does Not Support Increased Reading—As I teach English courses, a part of my goal is to compel students to read text, which already is a difficulty in a face-to-face environment. With distance learning, the social environment does not enhance the necessity for students to read more closely or copiously. The expectation is expediency and skimming in an online environment. I’ve found that the more I write for an online class, the more students will ignore my text, since it requires more reading. Often, I was forced to reduce my texts to a minimal, bullet point-laden outline just to get students to read my lectures and teaching (which is honestly what I’ve found with my blog writing, also…the longer the text, the more likely readers decide to skip it…the irony, as a composition teacher, I am supposed to teach students how to read complicated texts and write extended papers.)

Teachers Now Have to Be Experts of Visual Production—In order to teach online, it is encouraged for teachers to record themselves with video or Skype-type interactions. I’ve recorded myself lecturing, and I can testify that it is difficult to keep my own attention when it is simply a video of my face-to-face lecturing. In order to create effective videos, it seems to require strong visuals, compartmentalized messaging, and again, minimalized information-sharing. This is effective video, but not necessarily efficient teaching. Consider how good Hollywood and television are at visual production, but ask yourself how often they’ve been able to succeed at encapsulating the exciting classroom lecture for an audience. It’s not easy; certainly it’s not easy for a teacher who has not been trained to create video productions. Yet another component of education to which teachers must adapt.

Students and Teachers Are Expected to Be Online At All Times—In order to be available for students, it is expected that teachers have their laptop or cellphone on them at all hours. There is also an expectation of instant gratification for both student and teacher because of online components. For instance, a teacher sends an announcement, and if a student does not read it right away, they might miss something that has been changed with an assignment’s deadline…and if the student misses the deadline, then often they are out of luck according to the teacher’s policies. A student might send an e-mail, and if the teacher does not respond within hours of the correspondence (sometimes, during the times they should be sleeping), then the teacher is often labelled a bad teacher. Oh, and don’t get me started on the amount of times an assignment was turned in, and a student was expecting a grade an hour after they turned it in…

Online Aggression—I think we can agree that people tend to be a bit bolder and hostile when communicating online. If you don’t believe me, then read some online comments of news reports or spend some time going back and forth with trolls on Facebook. Just because the online environment is a learning experience does not preclude that the aggressive characteristics of internet communication will not be found in a distance-learning class. Many, many times I have had to intervene with a student’s online correspondence because it mimics the aggression that you find across the internet…and sometimes, the student thinks they can pull the same thing with the teacher and get away with it. In fact, I know that some teachers can be the worst offenders of all, when it comes to aggressive online behavior.

Decreased Communal Camaraderie—One of the benefits of face-to-face learning is that you are a part of a community that interacts with one another. There are some experiences of the face-to-face classroom that just cannot be provided online, no matter how much interactive technology you incorporate. Subjectively, it’s harder to make friends on-line than it is when you get to be in the same room for weeks at a time. It is a genuine difficulty at times to teach a class where you cannot frequently speak and get to know your students. There is also something lost for students, who do not get to interact and befriend their peers in a classroom environment.

Frustration for Technological Communication—An extension of the last criterion, one of the most frustrating parts of online teaching involves the socially-accepted norm that online communication is easier than speaking in “real-time.” I guess I’m one of those old fogies that become frustrated with his computer and cell phone. I also internalize my angst when I notice the majority of people around me have their head buried in a cell-phone everywhere and all the time…because everything’s better in technology. I can testify that quite a few students would prefer to just talk to their teacher instead of having to use these infuriating devices all of the stinkin’ time!

Potential Devaluation of Academic Standards—It is automatically assumed that an online educational course is comparable to the standards of a traditional classroom experience. I have yet to accept that as truth. I’ve noticed that a part of the online trend is to design courses around convenience rather than rigor. The goal of these online course-creators is to pass and retain more students, and often, the insistence is they maintain the harsh academic standards…good luck if you believe that is a realistic fix, just because it utilizes online technology. I’ve noticed a glut of PhDs entering into the college environment, and wouldn’t you know it, most of these doctorates earned their degree online…

Are We Teaching or Testing?—Having taught online, I notice my role has become less of a teacher and more of a facilitator. Even if I have leeway to design a course instead of using a state-wide utilized curriculum, there is little that is expected of me, as a teacher, other than assign the materials, grade the assignments, and answer e-mails to the best of my ability. The practice of teaching online is mostly that of gatekeeper, where I communicate to students what is expected of them in order to earn a grade. Actual teaching doesn’t really happen for an online class of students. Perhaps, this is representative of a greater change in our education system, as I observe that this expectation for facilitation-instead-of-teaching has extended to the face-to-face classroom as well.

As a teacher, I admit frustration about online learning. There’s no denying that it has gained a strong foothold in our education system, and standing against the tide has proven to be quite useless. Personally, I’ve been swept aside more often than not by the sheer amount of educators and administrators that insist this is the “wave of the future.” I write my opinion today knowing how readily it will be dismissed as irrelevant, yet, as per usual, I cannot suppress my opposition. I wish more of the public might consider the ramifications of distance-learning as anathema to education to the same degree and with the same passion that Common Core has offended our sensibilities.

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  1. There are so many great points here that I so wholeheartedly agree with. Also I think this whole idea of ‘the wave of the future’ is (in the long run) a myth, we cannot just accept that we have to change because change is good. Ultimately there needs to be something better about it that makes us make the change. In terms of education, if people can learn better online, then we should do it, but in most online learning today the jury is still out on that. We are too young in the technological era (basically only 10 years) to make these kinds of assumptions. Personally I do think there is a place for technology and online learning in education, but most organisations can’t find it, they are too preoccupied with keeping up with other colleges without thinking about if what they are doing is really worthwhile. Many universities (over here in Malaysia at least) are closing down their skyping classes citing too many issues e.g. technological glitches, low participant rate, etc. To me the teacher in the classroom will never be removed from the equation, It’s just finding the best way to integrate both, and that will take time, let’s say another 15 years – minimum!.

    In terms of acceptance of online degrees, we at our school don’t accept any teachers who have got their degree online, as we have found that the quality of that teacher’s performance is generally questionable.

    Saying that we do have (what we call) an online English course for students in schools in poor areas This programme is to be used for those schools who cannot afford a native English teacher to teach their classes, so they use their own teachers and use this recorded class as the focus. This way the students get the course fundamentally taught in correct English, but aided by their local teacher. This has been very successful. The costs are low and the students actually learn considerably better than if they only had their local teacher teach them. So perhaps this is one way to move forward. We created this system because we really thought that this was the way to go in terms of helping people in poor areas learn better. And it has worked.

    Also by the way, we have offered the equivalent in ‘skyping’ classes, and we have an almost zero interest. ‘Skyping’ classes were generally considered way too expensive and to inconvenient for our students budget, they said that they wanted to come in to the school and sit in the class with the teacher and other students.

    One thing we forget about in the ‘classroom’ setting for learning is that students meet other students, relationships are formed, friendships made, marriages created and even babies are born! These factors may not have anything to do with the subject they are learning at college, but it does make their experience far more human and real. There is so much more that goes on in ‘being at college’, than sitting in front of a computer screen. There is a culture or community that is formed that no ‘online facebook friend’ can honestly fulfil.

    So that’s my opinion…..

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your opinion. I do agree with every one of your points, also. Change for the sake of change does not justify the prevalence of online learning; the change should be for the benefit of students receiving a better education. I’m not certain that this is the case since elements of the classroom experience are lost. You are right that it might take years for the process to evolve correctly, if it actually does. My worry is that online learning is promoted more for profit potential than educational improvement. Having written that, there is a need for better educational opportunities in impoverished communities (I assume more in Malaysia than America; though, the same can be said about urban areas like Chicago, Detroit, and Houston), and online learning can be helpful (but as an aide, not a panacea).

      Perhaps the biggest problem I see is the lowering of academic standards in schools because of online learning. It is encouraging to know that some schools do not put a proiority on recipients of online degrees.

      Skype has been promoted as the same (or even a better) experience as face-to-face communication. In meetings or classrooms, my experience has taught me that at least twenty minutes at the beginning of 90% of these meetings must be spent (i.e., wasted) taking care of connections and other tech issues. Once these are taken care of, many people feel compelled to walk away from their cameras to grab snacks, go to the bathroom, etc.,…and I’ve already mentioned in my article about the production limitations of teachers. Most successful online learning experiences I have had with students are the ones that have nothing to do with Skype or recorded lectures.

      Ultimately, your final point nails on the head why online learning can never fully replace a classroom experience. A community is necessary to educate; the teacher is only one factor, and students need to interact with one another to learn about being human. It’s just as important as tests, assignments, and textbooks. I know we are to believe school is primarily about finding a job in many people’s minds (at least it seems to be in America), but an education needs to incorporate communal learning that a computer can not replace (and even in a workplace, it’ll be good for students to learn how to interact with work peers, I’d assume).

      Thank you again for your patronage and your excellent commentary. It is good to know that there are other educators who share my concern with online learning.

      1. Thank you for your generous reply. I am strangely reassured that the technical issues you talk about in skype meetings are not just happening at this end, they are everywhere. I find the whole idea of having a skype meeting a great idea in principle but in reality so problematic.

        Thanks again.

  2. To the point, “Having taught online, I notice my role has become less of a teacher and more of a facilitator,” I’d have to respond that as a new college student, I noticed the difference between K-12 teachers and these new (to me) ‘instructors’ was precisely what you described. More and more I found my academic success depended overwhelmingly on the degree to which I devoted myself to my personal studies. Of course deadlines and teacher requirements were critical, yet instructors seemed, indeed, as simply facilitators.

    A seasoned instructor, whose name I cannot recall, once reflected 9at a Halloween get-together of yours, no less) that not-uncommon adage that teachers don’t pour their knowledge into open student minds, but rather they facilitate students’ largely independent learning process. I should have reason to agree.

    Nevertheless, online learning certainly has its drawbacks, and at present the cons outweigh the pros for the majority of students, in my experience. Therefore, I agree with your positions.
    As an aside, those first two videos on online education had me rollin’–thanks for the laugh!

    1. One of the more philosophical arguments I enjoy involves the role of the teacher in our community (as I’ve had several with you in the past, I assume you know of my enthusiasm). The question of “how (or when) to allow a student to rely on one’s own facilities primarily, without the teacher’s guidance or oversight?” often is a difficult one. I’ve found there is a balance necessary, lest the education becomes an authoritarian experience, or just a certification process without any retention of skills, knowledge, or acumen. Facilitation is certainly a valuable component of teaching, as ultimately the agency of the student is the desired goal, rather than the authority of the educator.

      Let me share a story from my undergraduate experience: I was training for a tutoring position in college, and the supervisor insisted on a primarily facilitative approach. The training mostly involved interacting with a learner in such a way as to turn questions back at the asker,

      “How do I write better sentences?”

      “How do YOU think you should write better sentences?”

      “Am I writing this paper okay?”

      “Do YOU think you are writing this paper okay?”

      “Do you think I should get an A?”

      “Do YOU think you earned an A?”

      While it can be a benefit for a student to answer their own questions, I often felt it was passing the buck, dismissing potential progress or confirmation of learning of the learner, in an effort to invoke a subjective process of self-affirmation for a student that might not always succeed. Truthfully, perhaps betraying my conservative tendencies, it seemed a bit too new-age, and it just seemed more of a way for teachers to avoid teaching. As with most argumentative implementation, I think mediation is better for solution than absolutism…and teaching should not wholly be about facilitation, nor should it be wholly about long-winded lecturing. Perhaps this is applicable to the online environment also.

      I’m glad to hear that the videos invoked some laughter…I’m afraid the marketing of online classes does the same for me initially, but they’re usually followed with some sadness, as unfortunately, Americans at times seem to be more receptive to thirty second advertisments than 16-week college courses.

      Thank you, the Forgetful Philosopher, for always bringing me back to a love for wisdom with my ponderances.

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