We are having the wrong conversations around online instruction. There is a constant pressure to “utilize” technology and “expand online learning” without much reflection on how the technology could actually enhance learning rather than just perpetuating ineffective teaching methods.
Ironically (considering my background in the technology world), one of the areas that I turned my back on in frustration a number of years ago was online education. The reasons for this were that, working within the traditional learning management system (LMS)—for me, that was WebCT, Blackboard, and Moodle—I was too constrained as an instructor, cut off from my students, and, consequently, forced into a Hobson’s choice of mass failure or a drastic lowering of standards. Most importantly for me, classes in an LMS rarely reach the status of a community of learning.
How online environments fail students
For freshmen and sophomores, especially at an open-enrollment college, the most crippling deficit students suffer from is not lack of talent or intellect; it is a poor grasp of learning skills. This deficit is magnified by the nature of most online instruction these days in large part because the platforms most institutions are given to work with tend to work best for self-directed, motivated learners. Even for these kinds of learners they act as constraints to the kinds of exploration necessary for active and empowered learning.
As I have written recently, even in a traditional classroom environment there are severe impediments to the kind of open, creative learning we want from our students. There is always the temptation to go the easy way toward rote learning.
The online learning environments that exist today facilitate that temptation by prioritizing content delivery over interactions. We need to deconstruct online education and understand where its current paradigm has led us to. To do this, we have to ask ourselves whether we are facilitating the kinds of learning that are necessary to solve the problems of today and tomorrow.
Online learning has always been sold as a logistical expedient. First, it “meets students where they are” so that they can learn asynchronously and/or without reference to geography. It therefore expands the reach of “education” and, as a result, created the second logistical expedient: enrollment growth that didn’t require a parallel growth in expensive physical facilities. This second one quickly grabbed the attention of those institutions trying to grow their enrollment and was justified in part as the parallel “good” of expanding higher education in underserved markets.