Mention the words “online education” and many a faculty member will raise an eyebrow and start getting defensive.
On the one hand, administrators and people outside of academia really want more of online education; they cite the outrageous hikes in college tuition over the past fifty years, and wonder if online education can be used to remedy this, they want us to be able to reach and cater to potential students who may not necessarily be able to physically attend a class.
These demands instantly raise faculty hackles. We tell administrators that online teaching is not necessarily cheaper, and if done well, will be just as expensive as face to face education. We gesture at MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) which generally consist of video lectures and assignments which are evaluated by peers or graded by computers as examples of bad pedagogy with massive attrition rates. For many, online education also represents the alienating effects of modern technology: young people sending Snapchats to each other instead of having a conversation in person.
For many of us faculty, this makes online education the big bad wolf. Online education scares us. We fear that online courses are going to make our in-person courses outdated. We fear being replaced by talking heads on computer screens. We worry that this signals the death of higher education as we know it.
Can we try a thought experiment? Let’s try to set aside our fears and anxieties just for a moment, and discuss what makes the online environment so different from the physical classroom. Let me give an example. Films and books. We often tell our students that watching the film adaptation of a book does not replace the experience of actually reading the book. Why do I say this? Because both are different media—what is available in one is more difficult to access in the other. Often film adaptations of books are unsuccessful because its producers do not consider the specific affordances of the medium adequately. A film is not a book. It is much easier to showcase a character’s perspectives and mental state in a typical book as compared to a film; while it takes pages and pages to fully visually describe a setting which a few seconds of camera time can accomplish.
Can we apply our understanding of these differences to online and face to face education? Expecting that they are or will be the same animal is expecting a film to work the same way as a book does. But in an online course, individuals are not embodied in the same way that they are in the classroom. This indicates a whole lot of limitations and possibilities in between both spaces. On the one hand, an instructor cannot rely on physical presence and charisma to get students to pay attention in an online space. On the other hand, the more disembodied nature of the space may give shyer students more opportunities to be heard than in a traditional classroom, where physical energy can often overwhelm more introverted people. In other words, both online courses and physical ones create communities in different ways. Instead of trying to superimpose one medium over another, we could think about each separately.
This is a start in a series of posts which will muse on this specific aspect—on the nature of the online space, how and why and what is unspoken about the community it creates, is able to create, and is not able to create. I am a teacher who has thrived in the face to face classroom, but I don’t know enough about how I can do the same in its online counterpart. I want to probe this question more deeply, to nudge myself to think about how to create an ideal digital learning community—not to replace embodied ones, but rather to think about how they can augment and supplement our physical world. Who else is in?
*If you want to join in, send me a note through social media or email with your Medium name and I’ll add you to the Who’s Afraid of Online Education? collection.