Online learning, teaching and misleading opinions

A couple of pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post have attracted some attention over the past couple of weeks for their descriptions of online and blended-learning environments—and both have made the mistake of assuming that just because one experience is a certain way, that all experiences in these environments are that way. As I have said countless times, just because an experience is online or blended does not make it necessarily good or bad, just as just because an experience is in a “traditional” face-to-face environment does not make it good or bad.

I wrote letters to the editors about both. Given that the editors chose not to publish them, I have chosen to publish them below.

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In Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column, “Nothing can replace a good teacher,” (July 15, 2012), he cites the sad case of a school in Michigan as an example that technology alone won’t save our schools; we still will need teachers.

Mathews is right, which is why no serious advocate for the ability of technology to transform our education system suggests that technology will replace humans. The observation that many have instead made is that the job that we expect teachers to do today is superhuman; technology can help automate or improve on certain tasks to free teachers up to do what humans do best, including answering complex questions, fostering conversations, diving deeper into topics and mentoring.

Technology is no silver bullet, but expecting every classroom in America to have a great teacher who can meet every child’s distinct learning needs given the demands of today’s job is a pipe-dream as well. By transitioning thoughtfully to a new education system powered by digital learning in which teachers’ roles are different from those of today but no less vital, we can bolster every child’s learning to help them realize their highest hopes and most daring dreams.

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In the New York Times, the op-ed titled “The Trouble With Online Education” (by UVA English Professor Mark Edmundson, July 20, 2012) failed to mention the  numerous ways  students and teachers can interact in online-learning environments—and how these can be far more robust than is possible in a traditional classroom or lecture hall-only setting. In my years of research on online learning, what I’ve found fascinating is that a vast majority of online learning teachers report that they get to know their students better than they did in their traditional face-to-face classes, and they say they can address students’ questions more effectively. Of course, just because a course is online does not mean it will be good, just as not every traditional lecture or classroom experience is good or bad. As Mr. Edmundson accurately said, there is no “single best way” for students to learn, so what’s important isn’t the medium in which material is taught, but how the course is designed within the medium.

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Finally, for those seeking a good overall point of view explaining the problem with the op-ed from the New York Times, I recommend highly MIT senior lecturer Steve Spear’s blog on the piece, which you can read here. Spear presents the argument about why online education is valuable from a disruptive innovation perspective, as well as why the piece itself contains many misleading strands that are false generalizations.

This post originally appeared on

POSTED BY Michael Horn ON August 6, 2012

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Grace Caruso

I can never tell if the people who write these articles have ever actually taken an on-line class, not taught one, … taken one, that you have paid for, preferably for actual credit… not a totally useless “certificate.” There are still huge problems with on-line classes, including that larger class size than traditional classes, significantly less access to teachers, and huge time delays in communication. As far as communication with other students… the fact that teachers generally require a given number of interactions between students, should say it all. There are rarely more than required. Cheery email: “Hi Everyone, how’s it going” is not actually communication. Communication is by email or some form of it. Think about that…what is the difference between a face-to-face conversation, a phone conversation and an email. Really even the biggest computer geek should be able to figure out the problems with this. I know the majority of teachers are not any more “inspiring” that the majority of students but we have all had a few of the great ones and I am willing to bet they are not “on-line.” And listening to a great lecture by someone famous, is not the be all and end all to a teacher-student interaction. That is a form of entertainment, not necessarily “teaching.” Stop hopping on the techno-freak band wagon and think a minute about what we are actually doing.

Laura DeSena

What is missing from the conversation is the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous online courses. Complexity must be embraced if these conversations are to have actual validity. I have taught both types of courses for New York University and have served as a faculty observer in NYU’s SCPS online program. The depth of interaction in synchronous courses (enhanced by asychronous elements of blogs, wiki, discussion board postings) is more like what Professor Edmundson describes here: “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.” Synchronous is of the moment — allowing for genuine epiphany in the moment enhanced by reflection through the asynchronous element. When the course shell is designed by the instructor — is another distinction worthy of consideration — versus prepackaged content being put forth particularly by those selling to the K-12 market. Blended learning is yet another layer. The conversation has to have depth and breadth.

[…] Horn agrees that what matters is how a course is taught, not whether it’s in-person or online. In my years of research on online learning, what […]

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