Online Education–Almost as Good as Face-to-Face?

Writing
in the New York Times, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson
argues that online education is never going to be as good as live education
with a real professor in a real classroom. In a sense, he’s right. There’s
nothing like a top teacher: someone who can not only present complex material
lucidly and even entertainingly, but who can also coax out a lively dialogue
with his or her students, even in a huge lecture class. Even the best online
offerings lack that “collaboration between teacher and students” that
is characteristic of a “memorable college class,” Edmunson writes.

 

But in
another sense, Edmundson is wrong. Why? He’s comparing apples and oranges. The
appropriate comparison isn’t between the master teacher (and Edmundson himself
has that reputation) teaching in-person and delivering the same material
online. Of course the online version is going to be a “monologue and not a
real dialogue,” as Edmunson phrases it, that pales in comparison to the
live presentation. But the point of comparison isn’t between the
“memorable college class” and its online version. It’s between the
online version of the memorable class and the typical far-from-memorable
college class, especially at the elementary level and especially at  large
public institutions where there can be little live interaction between
professors and students, especially during the first two years.

 

Remember
that French 101 or Calculus 101 class that scarred you for life during your
freshman year? Chances are it was taught by an inexperienced graduate student
untrained in public speaking who filled the blackboard with illegibly scrawled
declensions or equations that left you more puzzled after you left the
classroom than before you entered it. That’s where a high-quality online course
can offer a superior educational experience. While excellent teachers abound
everywhere, from the Ivy League to community colleges, even at the most elite
universities “memorable” classes–in contrast to classes that are
merely very good–are few and far in between. That’s why they’re called
“memorable.” They stand out from the run-of-the-mill.

 

Edmunson critiques a pre-filmed online course from
Yale about the New Testament. Despite the fact that the instructor was
“hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate,” the course
“wasn’t great,” Edmundson concludes. Yale has one of the best
religion programs in America.
Maybe the college you attend also has an excellent religion program and some
top teachers–but maybe it doesn’t. Which would you rather do–stick with what
you’ve got or try the online course from Yale? The point of the new Coursera
online venture–which Edmundson’s University of Virginia just joined–is to offer
the best of Virginia’s and other top universities’ courses to people who can’t
get to Charlottesville or Princeton. The experiences might not be quite so
memorable as the experiences of the lucky few in Charlottesville and Princeton,
but chances are that the online students will still learn something they won’t
forget.

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Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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