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A week ago Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, sent me the NY Times op-ed piece “The Trouble with Online Education” by Professor Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Rabbi Segal was asking me for my opinion, which I gave, and then sent my comments to some of his staff which begun a thoughtful exchange.

I would have written this post sooner, but unlike Professor Edmundson, I have been deeply involved in developing a highly engaging interactive online course for the fall as well as attending a conference on online learning. I point this out because from what I can tell Professor Edmundson has never taught or engaged in any online course and, from what I can tell from his article, has not spent much time researching this area of teaching and learning.

As has been the New York Times modus operandi as of late, the op-ed was questioning the value of online education and concluding with a lack of support for it. As I have long let go of expecting the news to be balanced and a purveyor of facts, I am not shocked with the Times once again fueling opposition towards online learning. However, there are instances when lines are crossed in the media and that is when fiction is passed on as facts, opinion or not.

The focus of Professors Edmundson’s opinion can be summarized by this paragraph of the article:

“Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialog. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.”

First, and the most egregious violation of this piece, is what he is presenting as online learning and building his opinion around. Professor Edmundson presents online learning as solely being represented by what we have seen come out of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Georgia Tech and M.I.T. These initiatives, while ambitious and adds great access and information from amazing thinkers, are far from representative of a traditional online course. These initiatives are called “Massive Open Online Classes (MOOC’s)” and are exactly what they say they are. They are mainly packaged lectures and sometimes assessments available to the masses. Like in any course, online or not, there is range of quality among them and many MOOC’s also offer assignments, discussions and some level of personalized learning. In fact, I just signed up for my first one on Educational Entreperneship and am looking forward to it. However, to state that “online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor” based on MOOC’s is slightly misrepresentative of the field since they were created with the intention of basically trying to be one thing to many people; a portal to learning previously unavailable to most of its users.

The reason MOOC’s were created were based on a value that information and education should be available to anyone who wants it. I wonder what Professor Edmundson feels about the Cape Town Open Education Declaration or does he feel education can and should only exist for those who can afford and access his alma mater, Yale, or his literature classes at the University of Virginia? On aside, here is a link to free English Literature courses if you did not get into Professor Edmundson’s course: http://www.saylor.org/majors/english/ . However, to offer up MOOC’s and only MOOC’s as what is wrong with online education is pulling a fast one on the general public, devaluing a lofty social aspiration of education for all and is just plain irresponsible. Additionally, as MOOC’s increase and improve there is more personalization and customization due to highly advanced data collection and technology. It is worth watching the Daphne Koller’s TEDTalk, one of the founders of Coursera, on the value and progress of these massive courses.

Whether you have 100,00 students or 10, a good online course is far from “one-size-fits-all.” Personally, as an online instructional designer, I find that I am better able to meet individual needs as the online work can easily be tailored when needed. I get instant feedback on how students are doing and when I am focused on one student there are no other distractions. In fact, it often takes more of my time than a brick and mortar course because I get more focused on individual needs, but it is a better learning environment because of it. Professor Edmundson’s example of “lectures already in the can” is an example of a poor MOOC and certainly any traditional online course as the goal is not just delivery of amazing thinkers to the masses. However, the canned lectures are not exclusive to poor online learning courses.

While I can’t speak to Professor Edmondson’s courses, I am sure he would agree that there are brick and mortar University courses that have little interactive qualities and are made up solely of talking heads. That is not a high quality brick and mortar University course, nor an online one. If you watched Koller’s TEDTalk, you will see that is not goal for MOOC’s either. My courses, and all the good ones out there, are interactive, student driven and highly engaging. I hardly have any lectures and the quality of the course is directly related by the time and ability I put in to engaging my students.

Online course are built to provide easier access to education and in many ways address an issue of quality in modern teaching techniques. They are thought out, planned and intricately designed. They take countless more hours than a brick and mortar course to develop as any designer will tell you. As one who had taught in both, I can personally attest to that. We have standards we follow and quality that we strive for. For K-12 course design there are wonderful standards developed by the International Associate for K-12 Learning (iNACOL). For higher education there are organizations like The Sloan Consortium that support online learning and, personally, I utilize a thought out rubric to guide my course design created by California State University. If you review these standards and guidelines you will clearly see the pedagogical foundation that drive the design decisions and how far it is from “one-size-fits-all.”

The second point Professor Edmundson makes that I want to address is his assumption that online courses lack a personal relationship and connection with the professor and other students. He talks about memorable experiences students may have in even a larger lecture that they could not possibly have in online courses. Again, as we have all probably experienced, being in a room with a professor and other students does not guarantee engagement. It is not guaranteed online either, but Professor Edmundson seems to suggest it is not possible. This is just not true.

In my courses I evaluate them on various levels, and engagement with the professor and other students are a couple of those levels. I am glad to say they usually score very high. This is not always the case, but generally it is, and my rating is directly related to how much I engage my students. Specifically, it is related to how quickly I respond to emails, give feedback, grade and make myself available for a phone or skype call. Ratings of engagement with other students is directly related to how much opportunity that engagement is planned out in the design of the course. In my courses, there are online discussions, opportunities for live group conversations and ongoing sharing of work. Additionally, in regard to quality of the relationship, I am glad to say I still keep in touch with many of my former online students. When we do cross physical paths there is a joy and connection that has been built solely online. It is real and genuine. We have also laughed, shared joyful life events and supported each other during personal struggles.

I agree with Professor Edmundson that “every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” The difference is I know that it applies to online courses as well.

Criticism and voices of opposition are always important in any process of change so that we stay true and honest and above all challenged to strive for the highest quality. So, I appreciate the Professors challenge, but wish he was more knowledgeable about online learning so he can challenge all of us online educators with issues related to traditional online education. We must always be challenged on issues of engagement, quality, design, motivation, teaching and learning, outcomes and goals. These are just as important in brick and mortar course design, but are addressed differently in the online environment.

Professor Edmundson asks, “can online education ever be education of the very best sort?” Simply put, yes, and so can a brick and mortar class, if we are focused on high quality student centered education. I am sure I can learn much about course design from a master educator like Professors Edmundson, but he can learn a lot from me and many online instructional designers and facilitators. However, if I were to impart one lesson to Professor Edmundson, it is that the human capacity for learning is only matched by its drive and learning will never be stunted by those who fight to restrict it to the few lecture halls and ivory towers in this world. We are a global community filled with global learners and as educators we must choose to be global teachers or not at all.

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