Where ‘Generals Die in Bed’ Gets Online Education Wrong

An open letter to the Inside Higher Ed editors.

July 6, 2020

Dear Inside Higher Ed editors,

Your publication on July 6 of Jeff Kolnick’s Views piece "Generals Die in Bed" raises some important questions, I’m afraid, related to the opinion pieces that Inside Higher Ed chooses to publish.

My objection to Kolnick’s essay does not lie in his concerns about the health risks of face-to-face instruction during COVID-19. I share many of the same concerns.

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Instead, I’d like to confine my objections to Inside Higher Ed’s choice to publish Kolnick’s essay on the grounds of the author’s expertise -- or lack thereof -- in online education.

Kolnick makes the following assertions:

“Even the best-designed online experience cannot compare to a well-designed and -executed face-to-face class.”

And: “That will allow for the best kind of online teaching, where, with technology, we can meet live, synchronously, in real time.”

These statements, presented as facts, run counter to decades of research on the efficacy of online instruction. There is an enormous amount of literature examining the effectiveness of online education. Reviews of the empirical literature consistently find “no significant difference” across instructional modalities. What matters most is not if a course is residential or online, but the care and expertise in which it was designed.

This is not to say that online education is optimal for every subject or every learner. Instead, it is important to be clear that the delivery method is just one variable in the range of inputs and practices that drive learning quality and student outcomes.

Further, the research does not support Kolnick’s assertion that synchronous teaching is necessarily the preferred methodology for online instruction. Synchronous instruction can be effective, but only if it is integrated into a broader design of asynchronous activities. In some circumstances and for some learners, synchronous learning is not the optimal pedagogical design.

The COVID-19-necessitated shift from residential to remote learning has created a situation where those with little experience or expertise in online learning now claim expertise. Unfortunately, this development enabled the perpetuation of ideas about online learning that are neither supported by the research nor present in long-standing practices.

In choosing which opinion piece to publish, Inside Higher Ed should be careful to consider the knowledge and expertise that those submitting Views articles bring to the subject.

In the case of "Generals Die in Bed," the piece would have been stronger and more persuasive if the Inside Higher Ed editors had asked for revisions to remove the inaccurate characterizations of online learning.


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