I spent last Friday at the EconEd conference in Florida where I was part of a panel on ‘flipping the classroom’. The whole day was great, starting with the first session with Alex Tabarrok talking about “why online education works”. He had a lot of good points about the time and cost savings associated with online education but there was something that kept nagging at me. As I thought about it more, I realized that what was bugging me is also the main source of my general discomfort with most discussions about the benefits online education: those benefits largely seem to be tied to a model of education where ‘learning’ really just means ‘knowledge transfer’. That is, as far as I can tell, most of the time and cost savings of ‘online education’ are associated with moving lectures online, not necessarily any other aspect of the classroom learning experience.
Now, sure, if a teacher is currently standing at the front of the room and talking to the students, then it absolutely makes sense that such ‘teaching’ could be done more efficiently online, through videos by a superstar lecturer, for all the reasons Alex mentioned – an unlimited number of students could watch at their own pace, at a time/place that is most convenient for them, without having to deal with commuting or parking. But is that the model of ‘learning’ we really want to be replicating and spreading farther? There are a lot of people who have been arguing for a long time that if you want students to develop critical thinking skills, to actually learn how to DO economics, how to THINK like economists, then the lecture model is not a great way to go about teaching in face-to-face classrooms. So why is it any better just because it is done online? I get that it’s cheaper but if what we want is for students to learn deeply, then it shouldn’t matter that it’s cheaper – it still isn’t effective.
Of course, if what you want is to make content available in a relatively engaging format to people who would/could not otherwise access it, then online delivery is great. There are thousands of people across the world who are now able to learn/re-learn subjects they have a personal interest in, by watching videos of top experts in the field, many of whom are outstanding lecturers. And I love the idea of using online resources to flip classes (e.g., Derek Bruff has a fascinating post/paper about “wrapping” a course around a MOOC); moving content delivery online means class time is freed up for discussion, interaction and building higher-order skills. But I know that is not what university administrators mean when they talk about ‘online education' because hybrid online courses do not come with anywhere near the same sort of cost savings as fully online courses.
And that’s the problem I have when people start talking about online education ‘disrupting’ traditional education: they aren’t actually talking about replacing what we have now with something better in terms of helping students learn more deeply; they are talking about replacing what we have now with something that is more of the same in terms of learning, just produced at lower cost for more students (and with fewer faculty, which is a whole different issue). That is, with the model of “online education = more efficient content delivery for the masses”, we can have a similar quality of education we have now, for a larger quantity of students, with lower (marginal) costs. With the model of “online education = resources for more effective face-to-face teaching”, we can have a much higher quality of education than we have now, for a similar quantity of students, with similar costs. To be fair, the former could also offer marginally higher quality if the market condenses so only the best lecturers create the video lectures, but it’s still just content delivery. I'm also not saying that there aren't some fully online courses out there that do a great job of engaging students and creating interactive experiences that contribute to deep learning - but my understanding is that those courses generally do not come with the same economies of scale and reduction in costs.
I guess the way I would sum it up is that making content more accessible to more people with lower (marginal) costs is great but it is a very different goal from improving the education of the students we currently serve. And I think that is part of the frustration many faculty experience during these discussions of online education, as many advocates for online education (especially university administrators!) seem more focused on the first goal while we would rather talk about the second. Personally, I wish we were devoting less energy to debating the merits of online education and devoting a lot more to thinking about how to get instructors in both online and face-to-face classrooms to go beyond just content delivery…
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