Is online education the solution to widening inequality, rapidly rising costs, and lack of access to high quality courses? Will it lead to the demise of traditional “brick and mortar” institutions? I was initially very skeptical about the claims being made about online education, but after teaching several of these course during the past academic year my own assessment has become much more positive.
My main worry, as expressed in a previous column, was that the availability of online courses degrees would create a two-tiered education system and exaggerate inequality instead of reducing it. I still worry about that, but I didn’t give online education enough credit for the things that it can do. Here are some of the positives and negatives of online versus traditional education gleaned from my experience teaching both types of courses.
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Let me start with the negatives:
Can’t ask questions: In an online class, students cannot raise their hands and ask a question when they are confused by the material.
Can’t pace the lecture: In a traditional lecture the professor can tell when students are not following the material and adjust the pace of the lecture accordingly, but in an online course that is not possible.
Less contact with students: I value getting to know my students, but when I teach online courses that personal connection is missing. I put up video lectures for all my classes, so to some extent the students feel like they know me. But I have no connection to them at all except for the few who show up during office hours, or from email discussions.
Loss of the group experience: There’s something about watching a movie with a large group of people that is different from watching it all alone. Same for the classroom, it’s a group experience. Maybe it evolved from our time long ago sitting around the fire at night listening to stories that imparted knowledge from one generation to the next. There was an evolutionary advantage to having everyone jointly locked into what was being said. In any case, when a lecture is live in a classroom rather than at home on video there are no interruptions from roommates, there is no refrigerator calling your name, you don’t have the choice to procrastinate and put it off until later, etc., etc. A classroom commands your attention in a way that videos do not.
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Harder to form study groups: It’s also harder for students to connect with each other. That has social disadvantages, and from an educational standpoint it makes it harder for students to meet and form study groups. There are tools that allow online collaboration among students, and they can arrange to meet in person if they are on campus, but it’s not the same.
Office hours not as effective online: Office hours conducted in a chat room or by email are not as effective as traditional office hours. The main problem is technological. In my office I can easily go to the whiteboard, draw graphs, write mathematical equations, and so on, when answering questions. But online whiteboards are terrible for drawing graphs and writing equations on the fly. I can still hold traditional in-person office hours for on-campus students, but that is not possible for large-scale online classes with a substantial number of off-campus students.
Machine graded exams and homework: I do not like multiple-choice exams, especially for upper division courses. Essay exams are much better. It’s still possible to give essay exams and homework problems for online classes with limited enrollment, but grading written work is problematic when these courses are scaled up to hundreds of students to reduce costs. It could be done with enough grading help, but that would largely eliminate the cost advantage these courses offer.
Here are the positive aspects, and some of the ways the negatives discussed above can be overcome:
Different way of asking questions: Although students cannot ask questions in the same way they can in a traditional classroom setting, all is not lost. When students have questions during a video lecture, they can hit the pause button, rewind the video, and watch the section again. That is often enough to clear up the confusion. If not, while the video is paused they can read the book for clarification, search for an explanation using Google, or, as a last resort, save the question for office hours.
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Self-Pacing: the board is never erased: Many students have trouble keeping up with lectures while taking notes, so their notes are often missing many key points. With video lectures, the pause and rewind buttons can be used such that, in effect, the board is never erased – there is no excuse for having lousy notes. Thus, while I can’t adjust the pace of a lecture in the same way I can in a traditional lecture, the ability of students to self-pace has advantages. The students who get the material aren’t held up by the questions of those having trouble, and those who are having problems following along can use the pause and rewind buttons to slow the pace as much as needed.
Language barriers: International students often have trouble following lectures due to language problems. But with video lectures, they can watch the lectures repeatedly until they understand. Some of my international students tell me they watch parts of the videos over and over again, and they find this very useful.
Flexible hours: This one is obvious, but certainly worth mentioning. With online courses, the days and times of the lectures and exams are flexible, a huge advantage to students who have scheduling problems due to work, kids, and so on.
Office Hours: The videos are also a substitute for office hours, an advantage for students who cannot make it during the scheduled times due to work or family commitments, conflicts with other classes, and so on. When students have questions while studying, they can watch the part of the video that discusses the issue, and that usually provides the answer. In addition, the use of chat rooms for online office hours allows me to reach many more students. Traditional office hours are usually with just a few students at a time, but online chats about the course material at a scheduled time can be monitored by many students at once, and since the record of the discussion is saved, it can also be reviewed at another time.
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As noted in the introduction, I am still worried that the development of online courses will lead to a two-tiered education system, but that’s just another way of saying I think traditional “brick and mortar” education is better. Traditional higher education institutions can do everything online courses do – the online component can be duplicated and internalized – and they can also provide things such as hands on labs in the sciences, highly valuable internship opportunities, and the chance to participate in cutting edge research. However, my experience with online education has convinced me that the gap is not as large as it once was, and that there are both costs and benefits to consider when moving courses online.
Presently, I still think the costs of moving education fully online outweigh the benefits. But as technology improves our ability to duplicate things such as office hours, chemistry labs, social connections, and other benefits that come with the traditional college experience, that could – and probably will – change.
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