Saturday, November 6, 2010

What is it with the NYTimes and online education?

What is it with the NYTimes and online education? I read the NYTimes as my primary news source and pretty much every day I learn something substantial from reading an article in the NYTimes, something that adds to my knowledge and provokes me to ask more questions. Yet when it comes to education coverage, and coverage of educational technology in particular, the NYTimes is really bad. I mean REALLY bad. For online education, they seem to have the same article that they rehash over and over and over again, all about how online education is some dire threat, a ticking time bomb in the heart of our higher ed enterprise that is going to explode in our faces and bring an end to learning in this country. UGH.

The latest version of this rehashed article appeared in the NYTimes on November 4 2010, this time written by Trip Gabriel, with the title: Learning in Dorm, Because Class Is on the Web.

Here are the absurd things it states outright or insinuates about online courses:

*online courses cater to lazy students and money-grubbing administrators ("The University of Florida broadcasts and archives Dr. Rush’s lectures less for the convenience of sleepy students like Mr. Patel than for a simple principle of economics: 1,500 undergraduates are enrolled and no lecture hall could possibly hold them") - AS IF all online courses are mass production models, and as if all classroom-based courses were charming little seminars with the professor and adoring students seated comfortably around a table together.

*students are isolated from one another in online courses ("Students on this scenic campus of stately oaks rarely meet classmates in these courses") - WHEREAS my online course students have remarked in course evaluations that they interact with each other more online than in a regular classroom; how are you supposed to interact in a regular classroom after all, when the professor is talking and you are all supposed to sit there and be quiet and listen? (Lecturing is still a dominant model in university classrooms - something the NYTimes seems to find not problematic at all.) Students share all their writing online with each other in my courses: how often does that happen in a classroom course where the students are crammed into a room together for 150 minutes per week...?

*online education is inherently a failure because it is not face to face ("This may delight undergraduates who do not have to change out of pajamas to “attend” class. But it also raises questions that go to the core of a college’s mission: Is it possible to learn as much when your professor is a mass of pixels whom you never meet? How much of a student’s education and growth — academic and personal — depends on face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?") - POPPYCOCK. Imagine if the rest of the world were supposed to conduct all its business on a strictly face to face basis, without technology mediation. Just to take one example, if we are going to get rid of "pixels," uh, then I guess we will have to get rid of the entire television industry and only go to live theater! And let's get rid of radio and recorded music and only attend live performances! And, oh yeah, NEWSPAPERS, which I read pixel by pixel online, or dot by dot via drops of ink: let's get rid of newspapers, too, and only talk to reporters face to face to learn about the world's events! Reporter Trip Gabriel will need to make a little trip down to North Carolina where I live and talk to me face to face about the evils of online education I guess. Or I will have to make a pilgrimage to New York. Yeah, right.

*online education offers no interaction with faculty ("In a conventional class, “I’m someone who sits toward the front and shares my thoughts with the teacher,” she said. In the 10 or so online courses she has taken in her four years, “it’s all the same,” she said. “No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late.” As her attention wandered, she got up to microwave some leftover rice.") - WRONG: Not only does this imply, groundlessly, that classroom classes inherently provide timely grades and feedback, it leaves the completely misleading impression that all online classes fail to do so - but practically speaking, what about that classroom? In particular, what about all the students who do NOT fit into the front row? My experience in the classroom was that I could interact with a small number of students - in my online classes, I interact with every single student, meaningfully, every week, all semester; that could never happen in a classroom-based class, which is exactly why I prefer to teach online.

Luckily, quite a few people who teach online added comments to the article pointing out how one-sided it was, and how poorly informed. Here is the comment along those lines which I posted... similar to the literally dozens of such comments I have posted over the years whenever I see that the NYTimes has published a poorly informed and narrow-minded article about educational technology. I wonder when I will ever read an article about educational technology in the NYTimes that actually merits being published in that otherwise well-informed and informative newspaper!

My comment:
I feel very sad when I hear that students have had bad experiences with online courses, just as I do when I hear they have had bad experiences in the classroom. The student who remarked about "No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late" could be speaking just as easily of a badly taught classroom class as a badly taught online class.

As someone who teaches fully online classes and has done so for eight years, I find it FAR MORE PRODUCTIVE - both for the students and for me - than any class I could ever teach in the classroom. I am able to interact with each and every student every week, one-on-one, helping them to improve their writing, do research online, and learn to publish their work on the Internet. Lots of feedback, lots of work - and lots to be proud of, since they publish their work online at their own websites (you can see all the materials at I never had a way to work so intensively with each and every student in the classroom - and there was never a way in the classroom for all the students to be interacting with each other. For me, online classes are definitely superior to what I can teach in the classroom.

I wish more online teachers knew how to take advantage of the web tools and services that make it possible to build really exciting and educational online courses. Web publishing tools like GoogleSites and PBWorks, social learning sites like Ning, content tools like GoogleDocs and Flickr, all this great technology really can work to our benefit in learning and teaching online. Alas, I know that many of my online colleagues do not know how to use these tools - universities are very slow to embrace change, but the world of online learning is changing all the time. It's something that I love as a teacher; I wish that all online instructors felt the same and really harnessed the power of the online environment in their teaching.

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