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Trouble with Online Ed

Posted on Sep 17, 2012

Earlier this summer, Dr. Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times, expressing concern about online education. He shared that “as a friend and fellow professor said to [him]: ‘You don’t just teach students, you have to learn ‘em too.’ With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as a people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Edmundson goes on to explain in greater detail the relationship an educator shares with his or her students, likening a memorable class to a jazz composition. Edmundson argues that the best lecturers are the ones who have a strong sense of the mood of their audience, and can therefore keep a class engaged. Outside of the class, students may also find themselves in an “intellectual community” by virtue of knowing or meeting people who share that class. “When a teacher hears a student say, ‘My friends and I are always arguing about your class,’ he knows he’s doing something right,” Edmundson claims. Educators supervising online courses cannot necessarily match that.

For Edmundson, online education “is a one-size-fits-all endeavor” that “tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” In short, there is a lack of interaction between students and the educator and the course itself seems cut and dry.

In response to Dr. Edmundson’s assertions, Jane Rosecrans, a teacher of English and religion at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College wrote in a letter to the editor to indicate that Edmundson was not being fair in his assessment of online courses. Rosecrans has taught online since 1998, and offered an environment that fostered more interactivity than a traditional class might. Rosecrans commented that “the vast majority of my students contribute to discussions online, not just the few brave enough to speak up in a traditional class. The lack of spatial proximity gives more students the ‘courage’ to engage me directly.” Clearly, then, exercises in online education are not a pointless endeavor.

Rosecrans closes out her letter with a plea, saying “please, let’s not evaluate all online education based on the example of those at a handful of large universities.” Edmundson’s cautions are well-worth noting; there is no doubt that online courses and traditional courses offer different experiences and may each be suited to specific subject areas.

On the one hand, as has been discussed in many prior articles, online education has developed to allow a significant amount of interaction between students and educators, to the point where Edmundson’s concerns feel dead on arrival. On the other hand, the fact that concerns still persist about online courses being too sterile and inflexible suggests that strong online courses that exist and work wonders have not yet gained enough traction to begin turning opinions around.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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