Online Learning is not Simple or ‘Sinister’

Online education is neither simple nor sinister. John Thelin (July, 2012).

An astute [and amusing] observation by Professor Thelin in his essay Professors and Online Learning featured recently in Inside Higher Ed; more for his choice of the word ‘sinister’ in his description of online learning, which is how numerous faculty view online learning in higher education – bad, threatening, dark, even frightening. I am not exaggerating. The word ‘fear’ was used in the latest report on online learning, Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012, conducted by Babson Research which reported 58% of faculty [4,564 respondents] had more fear than excitement when asked the question “Does the growth of online education fill you more with excitement or with fear?”  In all fairness, faculty had a choice of only two responses to the question; the purpose of the question was to identify the level of optimism among faculty members. However it does provide a benchmark for the mood of faculty in regards to online learning, which Thelin addresses in his article.

Dr. Thelin, a professor at University of Kentucky describes in detail his own experience with the process of developing a 100% online course, including the arduous review procedure he went through for its approval. Interesting, is that the delays were caught in a bottleneck, at the top, barriers put forth by the higher level members of the board who Thelin aptly describes as obstinate luddites. Often the case in higher education circles, barriers to online education are not usually about the quality of the instructional strategy, but is the obstinacy of faculty opposed to the idea of an innovative form of education that differs from the traditional method.

What makes this article so relevant and noteworthy is the perspective that Thelin brings to this ‘new’ way of teaching, not only as PhD professor but also as a historian of higher education. In this post I’ll share the highlights of the essay and results from the report Conflicted, which complement each other beautifully, though I encourage readers to read both works.

The report Conflicted provides a snapshot of how faculty view online learning, which unfortunately as already mentioned, is with pessimism. Skepticism reigns not only about the learning outcomes, which 2/3 of faculty surveyed view as inferior to face-to-face learning, but also have doubts about online programs currently offered at the faculty’s respective institutions. The collective outlook is not good. However, we could attribute this ‘fear’ and pessimism to a fear of change, resistance to something different that challenges the status quo. Dr. Thiel gives a historic example from his archives that mirrors the current situation, a series of letters from 1891 between two prominent scholars:

“To discover that Ely [an influential scholar and professor of Economics] found time to teach in a new format and took seriously the evaluation of student correspondence courses was a revelation. It showed that more than a century ago, a famous professor took the plunge to participate enthusiastically in an innovative format for college level teaching and learning.  It would be comparable today to having the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman responding individually to an undergraduate’s e-mails as part of Krugman’s online course.” (Thelin, 2012)

Online learning is the modern day correspondence courses of the late 19th century. Yet how much richer the experience is today, how much closer a well-designed online course is (and in some cases superior to) the face-to-face experience. Thelin highlights another crucial point about online education that is often misconstrued, which is the cost of online education. It is not less of a financial commitment or less time intensive, in fact the investments are equal to or exceed traditional education. However, what online education brings into the equation is efficiency – more students can be reached with high quality education than with the traditional classroom in a brick-and-mortar school. Thelin ‘gets’ online education, as do many excellent professors and instructors of higher education. It’s up to these educators and administrators to break down the barriers that stand in the way of online education and educate others to discard the notion that learning online is something to be afraid of. It’s time to break down the walls.

Thelin, John. (July, 2012). Professors and Online Learning. Inside Higher Ed. Views

Kolowich, Steven. (June, 2012). Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012. Inside Higher Ed, Surveys

John Thelin, professor at the University of Kentucky, is the author ofA History of American Higher Education’ (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

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