Confounding Traditional and Open Online Courses

Responding to "Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help”.

January 23, 2018

Dr. Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, seems like the sort of colleague that I’d like to have.  Her research demonstrates a passion for education reform, and she pays particular attention to first generation students.  

It is in the spirit of collegiality that I critique her recent NYT’s piece Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help,

The main arguments in that piece are great.  We should be critical of online education, particularly when online learning is put forward as a strategy for cost savings.

For any population of learners, including the high school students that Dr. Dynarski focuses on, the key variable in determining educational quality is the presence of a skilled educator.

My critique of the piece comes in how Dr. Dynarski confounds traditional and open online education.

The first line of the article reads,

"A single teacher can reach thousands of students in an online course, opening up a world of knowledge to anyone with an internet connection.”

The problem, of course, is that traditional online education does not involve teaching at scale. 

Many of us who have worked for many years in online education are committed to a model of intimate learning.  This means small classes, built on active learning and intensive interactions between professors and students.

The online learning community is committed to advancing a learner-centric model.  Across higher education, it is online learning groups (and especially instructional designers) who have helped introduce research-based pedagogical practices into their institutions.

In her article, Dr. Dynarski recognizes many of the potential benefits of online learning.  She talks about blended learning, as well as shift towards leveraging online courses as a new admissions funnel.

What I’d ask is that we are scrupulous in distinguishing traditional and open online learning in our analysis.

The two modalities are very different. They are designed for different purposes, and have vastly different methods.

I’m a believer in open online learning, but only for a specific and limited set of circumstances.

Unlike open online learning, traditional online learning is inherently expensive. And it should be.

The quality of an online course is directly proportional to the ability of the professors to form relationships with their students.

The largest cost in a high quality online course should be the educator, and the team of learning professionals that the instructor works with to design and run the course.

How can we as a community move towards a positive, open, and supportive conversation about the future of online education?


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