The Limits of Online Education

From a fan.

May 6, 2020

The massive expansion of online education across the United States in response to COVID-19 is teaching us many lessons about the value of distributed learning, but equally important, it is reminding us of its limits. In the Naval University System (which consists of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.; the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.; the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif.; and Marine Corps University at Quantico, Va., which I oversee as the Navy’s chief learning officer) we have moved to 100 percent online learning during the crisis. In the process, we have gained a much clearer understanding of what online education cannot do -- or, in other words, the ways in which traditional in-person cannot be replaced.

The most obvious area in which online delivery simply cannot replicate the value of in-person learning is in science and technology education. In many of the degree programs offered by the Naval University System, STEM is a major priority, with students working long hours with their teams in our labs, conducting experiments. As COVID-19 has forced us to adopt online education, our faculty has responded magnificently. At Annapolis, for example, which offers one of the best undergraduate science and technology educations in the world, faculty members have been performing labs on Zoom and then providing data sets to students to analyze.

This is the best we can do in present circumstances, and I deeply appreciate the faculty for their heroic effort, but it is obvious to all of us that this distributed approach does not produce anything close to the value that would have been achieved if students were present in their labs, learning directly how to make and correct their own mistakes. This problem is even more profound in our graduate programs at institutions like the Naval Postgraduate School, where independent work in a lab is a core part of the student experience in engineering and technology fields. Simply put, the COVID-19 experience reminds all of us -- and should remind policy makers and administrators who will shape the future of American education -- that if we want the United States to remain the world leader in science and technology education at the university level, we have to invest in and protect traditional in-person academic programs.

Universities are also discovering that in a host of specialized areas, online education is completely inadequate compared to the traditional learning model. In the Naval University System, one clear example is in classified education. Because our education programs are focused primarily on educating military officers, many of our graduate programs feature learning experiences that are classified as secret or top secret. For example, we teach classes that focus on the latest classified information about Chinese and Russian military capabilities, the technology used in our latest weapons systems, and that test certain operational solutions to current and future combat challenges. The percentage of our educational programs that will operate in the classified realm is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, because they offer our students powerful learning outcomes that boost national security and that cannot be obtained from our civilian university colleagues.

These classes, however, cannot be taught in an online mode, where they would be vulnerable to hacking. Instead, to protect national security, they can only be offered in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, an enclosed and secured area within a building that is used to handle classified information and materials. In many of our programs, we are teaching our students as best we can online, with unclassified materials, but the education they receive during this crisis will not be as useful as that they would have obtained had we taught more advanced classes in person. I am sure other universities are identifying similar specialized education contexts that cannot be mimicked online.

We are also learning that for many professors and students, holding classes online, gazing at a small screen, is more tiring and less joyful than traditional in-person experiences. Though we do not yet have any comprehensive data or surveys that capture this phenomenon, many teachers and students report that they simply cannot spend as much time learning online as they could in person without fatigue and burnout setting in. In some of our courses, we have had to reduce class time in order to maintain a positive learning environment. This is not merely a quality-of-life matter but offers important insights into the limits of full-time online education. While online models may be great for the part-time student, they may not be able to achieve the same results in rigorous educational settings where five or more hours of classes, labs and office hours a day are the expected norm.

Finally, our massive move to online education has reminded us -- and hopefully, will teach this same lesson to university leaders and administrators who are adopting online education for the first time -- that reputation and rumor to the contrary, great online education is not really cheaper that the traditional in-person alternative. Yes, you can slap a bunch of lecture videos online, call it a “course” and offer it to many people at low cost, but that is not education, which requires rigorous conversation, dialogue in office hours, paper conferences, graded tests, supervised labs and individualized assessment. All of this has to be done by well-educated and experienced faculty members, regardless of delivery mode. Doing all this online offers many advantages, particularly when your student body, like mine, is distributed all over the globe. But it cannot be done any cheaper online, housing and infrastructure costs aside, than in person. Learning, whether in-person or distributed, requires teachers and time, and both cost money.

I am a huge fan of online learning. During this crisis, it has allowed us to continue the education of our students when we cannot be together with them safely in person. In the coming years, our Naval University System will be expanding online education, so we can reach sailors, marines and coastguardsmen who serve all over the world, far from our brick-and-mortar schoolhouses. But when the COVID-19 crisis is finished, we will return to traditional teaching methods in most of our traditional in-residence programs, so we can achieve the best learning outcomes possible.


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