The Real Trouble With Online Learning

By now, if you have been reading my blog for a little while or you have checked out my about me section you know that I am going to be a full-time missionary in Europe designing online courses to spread Bible training to those who can’t afford it otherwise. Two and a half weeks ago I favorited a tweet from a friend of mine that had a link to an article titled “The Trouble With Online Learning.” The article was written by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia and was originally published in the New York Times. I agree with Dr. Edmundson that there is a problem with online education, but I am not completely in agreement about what that problem is.

Dr. Edmundson talks about the relationship between the professor and the students  and how both generally benefit from the relationship that is built during a face-to-face course, whether it be a large lecture or a small upper-level course. The professor benefits because they can immediately see what is and what is not working and make adjustments for that and future classes. The students benefit because they can get more help if needed or possibly less help when the concept comes quickly. I completely agree that in good face-to-face course this happens and it is extremely helpful.

My biggest issue with this article is when Dr. Edmundson says, “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” In fact that statement bothers me quite a lot. For those of you who do not know, I completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, specializing in Educational Technology through the University of Florida. I never once stepped on campus until commencement and yet I would say that my education there was impeccable. Did I have some courses that weren’t the best? Yes, but I can’t imagine anyone saying that every course they took for their undergraduate or graduate degrees were perfect. Some curriculum, whether they are online or face-to-face, are going to be poorly written. Some professors, whether they teach online or face-to-face aren’t going to be the best teachers. No matter where the course is taught, some courses are going to be poorly designed or taught.

The real problem with online education, in my opinion, comes with the fact that professors and instructional designers are not prepared to design online courses or teach them. Dr. Edmundson raises a good point when he talks about a course he saw that used a taped lecture as the medium for the course’s information. He says, “In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.” He is completely correct. That course will provide the information for students who learn well from lectures with no dialogue, while others could probably read the textbook from the course and get the same information. That is not a high quality online course. A high quality online course is designed by an instructional designer, who has been trained, based on the curriculum and assignments the professor would use in a face-to-face course. The professor should then be trained on how to encourage interaction between him/herself and the students as well as between the students. The relationship between the designer and professor before the class starts is vital as well as the relationship between the professor and students during the course. Too often the professors are left to design their own course and teach it online without being properly trained. That is the real trouble with online learning.

One thought on “The Real Trouble With Online Learning”

  1. I agree with Jacob’s critique. I have seen the reality of the comment “professors and instructional designers are not prepared to design online courses or teach them” over and over again. Far too often, the expectation is that content from an existing course can be inserted in an electronic form online, and hey presto, we have an online course.

    Part of the ministry of eDOT is to educate schools and professors about the changes that are necessary in order to establish an online learning program. We have developed a Facilitator Training Course to educate instructors in the methods to encourage participation in online courses; specifically to avoid the pitfalls that Dr. Edmundson highlights. We in eDOT also object to the use of online courses as “self-study” courses.

    Further, we agree that the role of professors MUST change. In the past, professors were the “gatekeepers” to information; i.e., in order to be “educated,” a student needed to listen to the instruction given by a professor. That is no longer the case. Access to information is unprecedented in the 21st century, including print and online material. My online theological library is over 3,500 volumes, accessible anywhere I have internet access.

    As we consider education from a Christian perspective, our goal is not merely an increase in factual knowledge. A few hours on Wikipedia can increase factual knowledge. Our concern is to see life-transformation; to see a student grow to become a faithful disciple of Christ.

    Samples of courses that eDOT has developed, including the Facilitator Training Course, may be viewed at the following site:

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