I cautioned Kansas students to be sure that the online degree they pursue today will be recognized as the union card for the job they want tomorrow in “No Online Degrees” back in February. That column was picked up by a world news service. I added the fact that university vacancy candidates with online degrees were often eliminated in the first cut, by universities offering online degrees.
The reaction, mostly from heads of eLearning and online institutes, was overwhelming. Some looked up my institution and noted that I worked at a school that offered some online courses and degrees. I must be the only dinosaur left at my school that hadn’t adopted the teaching method of the future, they said.
On the contrary, I have colleagues across many campuses that agree with me. It is our polite silence, our reluctance to criticize this tuition-driven decision, that gives online advocates the false sense that anytime-anywhere virtual education is about to replace bricks-and-mortar schools.
Lecturer and book author Elayne Clift is not shy or quiet. Last May, she explained in the Chronicle of Higher Education why “I’ll never teach online again.” A successful traditional teacher, she details some of the shortcomings of online or distance education.
-lack of immediacy in communication that draws out the interchange
-far greater time and effort required to prepare and deliver the “course”
-anytime-anywhere for the student means the teacher is expected to be available all the time
-inefficiency of online teaching reduces the amount of material covered, so students learn less
Response to her criticism was again mostly from administrators of online schools. Instead of addressing the specific shortcomings, they claim online is a completely different mode of teaching; you cannot merely transfer lectures into online materials. The common example is the student who is too shy to speak up in a classroom but will write out her thoughts online (much more slowly I will note). But is this really an advantage when the student never develops the ability to speak up in public? Students must live and perform in real life, not a virtual “second life.”
Clift already addressed such online ‘advantages’: “While some people find the anonymity enabling and are able to bond with their cybergroup and engage in true confession, I find it extraordinarily difficult to communicate with people for whom I have no face, no persona, no body language, no in-the-moment exchange.”
That brings me back to the faculty vacancy and interview process. When applicants send us their resumes, we get a written view of who they think they are. We then use internet and phone to “interview” at a distance, and we get a little more information. But when the final candidates show up in person, we can find there is a big difference between what the media portrayed at a distance and what the reality was in person. In the same way, all of the so-called “interaction” online falls far short when it comes to a student building a shared understanding with a teacher and class.
The immediacy and efficiency of face-to-face teaching in the rich context of classroom discussion is not remotely matched by the most advanced online technology, filtered and strained through keyboard and mouse.
Universities and colleges that shift to online will pay a big price down the road if students no longer work face-to-face with faculty. Alumni are an important source of funding for scholarships and facilities. Without exception, donor alumni are expressing their appreciation for a school where one or more faculty members “knew them” and changed their lives. Such appreciation is triggered at a level well beyond “My employer gave me a raise for my online degree.”
So far, I have yet to meet one donor who is beholden to an electronic correspondence course.