Some Thoughts on a Snapshot of Conventional Wisdom

Analyzing a survey on faculty attitudes.

November 13, 2014

Insider Higher Education published another of their sweeping surveys recently, this one on faculty attitudes towards technology.

I mused on the results of the survey in a recent blog entry, and the original IHE article (not to mention the detailed survey itself) makes worthwhile reading. But having both created and critiqued survey-based research in the past, I think it’s safe to say that conclusions from such broad research should be thought of as snapshots of conventional wisdom at a certain point in time.

And that conventional wisdom says (unsurprisingly) that those who teach in the classroom are not as impressed with online learning as are others (like college administrators, not to mention those of us who work on technology-delivered teaching tools).

Now an uncharitable reading of those results would say that educators who feel threatened by the encroachment of technology onto their turf are lashing out to keep the classroom from going the way of the buggy-whip factory.

But a more charitable and, I suspect, accurate reading of the data would say that those who work with students every day in the intimate environment of the classroom are not bowled over by the results of moving bigger and bigger chunks of that experience into cyberspace.

And as a recent cyber-student, I actually agree with that attitude. For if I had the opportunity to study with those I learned from during my One Year MOOC BA in college classrooms where I could interact with the professor and my fellow students and be challenged through demanding assignments and intimate discussion, there is no question that this would be superior to any online attempt to recreate that experience.

But MOOCs (and other online learning options) have their own virtues which need to be balanced against the virtues of the classroom. 

First off, there’s the convenience that comes from detaching a class from a specific time and place. Students enrolled in a school like Harvard have set aside four years to attend class (most of the time, anyway).  But for everyone else - including a majority of those enrolled in two- and four-year degree programs in the US who don’t live on a campus between the ages of 18-22 – being able to take a class where and when they want carries value that must be balanced against whatever is lost when a course moves to the computer screen

MOOCs are still celebrated for their freeness (is that a word?), but I would say that their openness comes more from the lack of any entrance requirements. 

Five years ago, if you wanted to take CS50 with Professor David Malan or study The Ancient Greek Hero with Professor Greg Nagy, you would first have to apply and be accepted at Harvard (a one-in-twenty chance if you happen to have just graduated high school, a nearly zero chance if you graduated from high school long ago) or live in the vicinity of the Harvard Extension School and hope that one of the classes you wanted to take was being taught there. 

Today, however, you can take courses from Harvard, Wesleyan, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, Duke, and University of Tel Aviv (as I did last year) by simply clicking an Enroll button on a MOOC web site. And, unlike most online teaching experiences (including paid online degree programs), MOOCs are one of the few places where the shortcomings of online learning are acknowledged and being researched and (in more and more cases) addressed through active experimentation and development.

Finally, as valuable as many of us find (or found) classroom learning, this mode of education (like any other mode of education – online or off) can only be successful if the students participating in the experience are ready and eager to take advantage of it.

Which is why I was most intrigued by one commenter to the IHE story who wondered whether the burden for educational success should be placed on teachers and institutions or on students who participate (or not) in the classes in which they are enrolled.

A curious, disciplined and motivated student of any age is likely to succeed in becoming educated, regardless of teaching limitations, which might come from overcrowded or underfunded classrooms or online learning tools that need more time in the oven.

Which means that we may want to focus our attention on ensuring students are curious, disciplined and motivated before passing judgment on those humans (and machines) attempting to educate them.

Jonathan Haber is Chief Learner at Degree of Freedom. His book, MOOCs: The Essential Guide, is published by MIT Press. 


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