We Are Overthinking Online Education

We Are Overthinking Online Education

John Ebersole, a contributor at Forbes, wrote a piece today titled:  The Myths of Online Learning.

John’s analysis, is itself, not incorrect. But like most disruptive technology, we fail to see that online education, like social media, is a new channel for an old thing. Yes, the new channel creates new audiences, requires different preparation, perhaps different content delivery skills, but it is not essentially different from classroom instruction, and it is very close to the age-old practice of self-study.

Abraham Lincoln was famously a distance learner. He read books, taught himself some stuff, and then went on to prove his competency.

As noted in the New York Times (Eric Foner.  February 10, 2002) review of Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller. :

Having received almost no formal education, Lincoln embarked on a quest for learning and self-improvement. He read incessantly, beginning as a youth with the Bible and Shakespeare. During his single term in the House of Representatives, his colleagues considered it humorous that Lincoln spent his spare time poring over books in the Library of Congress. The result of this ”stunning work of self-education” was the ”intellectual power” revealed in Lincoln’s writings and speeches. He relied, Miller notes, on in-depth research and logical argument to persuade his listeners rather than oratorical flights.

Although are near mythic overtones, the basic premise of self-motivated education comes through clearly. Abraham Lincoln today, would be classified as a non-traditional student in a distance learning program.

All of John’s analysis apply as much to regular courses as they do online courses. Here is his list, with my comments in parentheses:

  1. Online learning will reduce the need for faculty. (Perhaps, but there is a bigger threat from reduced funding, either in public higher education from legislative action or from faulty business practice in private, for-profit institutions).
  2. All online courses are the same. (No courses are the same. Curriculum and approach are all-over-the-place in physical classrooms why should online courses be any different?)
  3. The quality of outcomes is less for an online student than for one who has received the same instruction in a classroom. (Students who receive instruction in the actual same physical classroom also experience different qualities of outcome. Ask any professor who argues grades at the end of the quarter, followed by self-reflection while reading student evaluations).
  4. “Online” instruction is synonymous with “for profit” institutions. (This is a pretty naïve myth. “Online” as I said above, is a channel. Some community colleges do more “online” or “hybrid” teaching than well-healed for-profits because their often rural students just can’t get to a classroom often enough. I’m not sure who thinks some of these myths are mythical.
  5. Credentials earned online are not accepted by employers. (That may well be a myth among students or parents, I can’t say. It certainly isn’t among employers, as I well know from my interviews and discussions with Western Governors University where employers help craft the courses so students learn what they need to in order to be effective employees post-graduation.)
  6. You don’t know if the person doing the work is the person receiving the credit. (First, this may not be a myth: Online Classes See Cheating Go High-Tech, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2012—and second, identity fraud, plagiarism and cheating is not limited to physical classrooms.)

“Online” education is a channel. What none of these myths hint at, and Lincoln proves, is that a motivated learner will learn regardless of the channel used to deliver the learning. We should be worrying about creating intriguing curricula delivered in an engaging and imaginative manner. If we can do that consistently, we can then pump that well-designed experience to enthused learners through any channel with similar results. Let’s get our priorities straight. Let’s discuss how we use online, games and other tools to enhance good learning experiences, not as an excuse for why poor learning experiences perform even worse.

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Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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