Argument for Online Education

The resistance to online education is a bit like the purists’ resistance to recorded music: Sure, live is “better” on many levels, but the advent of recording allows us to reach larger and more diverse audience. Is it as good as a “live” performance? Maybe not, but I can still listen to the Beetles even though they won’t be making any more live performances. And believe it or not, I believe that an intelligent use of prerecorded material can take us that much closer to the one-on-one question-and-answer sessions so valued by our most promising students.

Let me put it this way: Do we pay professors to lecture or to educate? Are we really respecting professors’ knowledge or time by insisting that they keep repeating the same basic lectures, again and again, to larger and larger groups of students? When I started at Purdue, I taught Developmental Psychology to a single section of 75 students. This coming semester, that same section will have more than 200 students, with many more students on the waitlist. More damningly, a number of psych majors can’t find any psych course to take. While we can (and do) restrict upper level courses to majors only, this is not an option for introductory courses. Put simply, the 100 and 200 level courses in psychology are in great demand–so much so, that right now, the demand far outstrips the supply. To solve this, we can either teach more sections, teach larger sections, or try something a tiny bit different. My proposal is simple and modest: By offering online sections of our existing courses (taught by the same professors, with the same basic materials and requirements, and, ideally, concurrent with the usual live sections) we can relieve some of the outside pressures on our major, and get back to smaller class sizes. We might also discover, as I have, that online courses offer some distinct advantages to traditional courses that help push education more in the direction of sophisticated one-on-one interaction and customized education.

Isn’t the hallmark of good education the back and forth dialog? Ever since Socrates, a premium has been placed on the importance of interaction. Indeed, the most common criticism of distance education in the past has been that it lacks this interactive component. But let’s be honest here: exactly how much interaction does the typical student get whilst sitting in the back of a lecture filled to the gills with more than 200 fellow classmates? Even if there is some conversation, all too often, it involves a poorly thought-out question or some brown-noser showing off. I have found that the online environment allows for a much greater level of interaction than the traditional classroom. Also, online discussion (and polling) allows a MUCH better picture of student understanding. Instead of hearing from the few, the brave, the brown-nosers; a teacher can get quickly get a sense of what the students are grasping and what concepts they don’t. Best of all, because this process is asynchronous, the teacher can dig up more, and better, examples to help the students.

In every class, there is content that changes with the addition of the latest research and an often large chunk of content that stays the same. Recording allows us to capture our expertise on this second type of content and bottle it for the masses, thereby freeing up time to make the up-to-date portions even more current and spend more time actually interacting with students, and isn’t that a better use of everyone’s time? Let me close with one warning: I know that ONLINE Education is not for everyone. Even with all the benefits, as the course number moves up, I believe it is more important for interactions that are not prerecorded. Likewise, for some students (especially minorities and disadvantaged populations) some online sections may well be a bad idea. But having the online option frees up the live sections for those who need it, and those who want flexibility or just want a taste can get it, too. Let’s not forget there is a class of students for whom online courses are the ONLY option. Again, this isn’t about replacing the traditional sections, but supplementing them.

(Originally posted Feb 15, 2011 on Posterous)


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