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An Open Letter to Professor Edmundson
July 22, 2012 - 9:00pm

Dear Professor Edmundson.  

I am writing this public letter to you in response to your NYTimes op-ed piece of 7/19 "The Trouble With Online Education." 

My motivations for writing are not our disagreements, which are substantial and detailed below, but rather what we (and I suspect many of the readers of this letter) share in common.   

In your writing it is clear to see that you are a devoted educator, and that your professional (and I imagine personal) identity is fully grounded in this role. It is your passion as an educator that motivated you to write your op-ed about online education, and I would feel safe in wagering that you bring this enthusiasm and dedication to your teaching and to your students.

It is precisely because I see us as fellow educators that I feel the need to (publicly) reach out to you to share why I think your critique of online education is so wide of the mark.

First, I'd like to begin with the areas that we are strongly aligned. You write that:

"With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue."

You go on to write that:

"Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background."

And you conclude with:

"A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates."

Given your critique of "online education," I find it ironic that learning designers and others who work day-in, day-out on online (and blended) learning spend much of our time saying similar things to our faculty partners and university stakeholders as you so eloquently articulated in the above quotes.

The error that you make, and it is a fundamental error, is that you confuse what is going on at Stanford, Yale, Harvard, M.I.T. with edX and Coursera, with traditional online learning. You write as if you are critiquing online classes, but what you are really taking issue with are the new crop of massively open online courses (MOOCs).   

This error is not merely semantic. Confusing online learning with MOOCs disallows any meaningful analysis of the challenges and benefits of either format. Conflating online learning with MOOCs also closes the possibility of any substantive discussion of how institutions of higher education are responding to challenges around access, cost and quality. And perhaps most troubling, by conflating online learning with MOOCs you are mischaracterizing and devaluing the hard work of your fellow educators to bring the active learning principles, the principles that you yourself espouse, to new teaching modalities.

The need to provide a basic overview of what online learning actually entails, and to explain how traditional online courses differs from a Coursera or edX MOOC, seems rather odd to anyone who has taught online or worked in a course design team. Suffice to say that nothing in your description of "online learning" resembles anything like I have experienced with blended and online courses.  You write that:

"Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue."

This characterization is in direct opposition to the principles in which quality online courses are designed. At my own institution, we have built the online components of our courses around group-based project learning, robust and rich asynchronous collaboration (in discussion forums and blogs) and immersive synchronous discussion across faculty and students (through virtual meeting platforms). If you doubt that an online course can have "real dialogue" I invite you to observe one of our courses.   

In my experience, and I venture the experience of all those who have worked to design and teach quality online courses, the amount of debate and dialogue within an online course can even exceed that of face-to-face learning.  This is because in face-to-face classes the amount of communication is limited to the time of the class meeting, and the fact that only one-person can speak at once.  With discussion boards, blogs, wikis and other means of collaboration there exists no such scarcity of time or space for communication.  

I am not arguing that online learning is superior to that of face-to-face courses, and in fact the gold standard is probably a blended approach. But I am certain that online learning has the potential to "create an immediate and vital community of learning."

The "intellectual joy" that can accrue to students and teachers in a well-designed online course is most often not at the expense of substituting a face-to-face course. The largest growth in online (and blended) learning is for students who would never have the opportunity to participate in postsecondary or graduate education due to work and family commitments. Online and blended learning opens up educational options for learners for whom a traditional residential model is simply not an option.

This argument in defense of online learning is probably not necessary, as again you were not really talking about online learning but MOOCs in your op-ed article. So let's talk about MOOCs.  

The first point is that nobody that I know in higher ed wants to replace your courses with a MOOC. The idea that any of us who have spent a lifetime in pursuit of creating and sharing knowledge would suddenly want all of our students to migrate into enormous open enrollment online courses is too ridiculous to spend much time refuting.   

Experiments such as edX are efforts by institutions to share some of the fruits of the higher ed learning experience for the world's learners who currently enjoy no access to any type of advanced educational content.  

The fact that online platforms allows universities to share some of what goes on in our courses (and we agree not the most important parts, that is the relationship between faculty and students), makes the decision to do so suddenly tenable. If institutions that participate in edX, or with for-profit partners such as Coursera or Udacity, also gain better brand awareness and visibility in the countries in which most MOOC participants reside - well all the better.   

An individual faculty member's decision to participate in a MOOC will of course be complicated. A mixture of a desire to share one's knowledge and to provide a service for learners not based on an ability to pay, as well as a shrewd investment in expanding one's professional reputation.  

Institutions of higher learning do many things in order to build our reputation and visibility in a completive global marketplace for the best students, faculty and staff. Participation in open online learning will, from here on out, be an important component of brand positioning and awareness.

Any self-interest on the part of institutions or faculty for participating in and offering open online learning should not, however, devalue the very real contributions that these efforts can make. 

Recall that for the learners participating in a MOOC, the choice is not a face-to-face class or the massively open online class, but rather the MOOC or nothing.  

I suspect that the quality of massively open online courses will increase, and we will find meaningful ways to grant certificates that can be useful signals to potential future employers.  

Nor should we discount the amount of learning that we (higher ed) can accomplish around how people learn. At least in as much as we can measure learning by online testing, the large datasets we will be develop that capture inputs (rich media, simulations, exercises, etc.) and outcomes (tests, and even future employment measures), will prove valuable for original research. If we think of MOOCs as opportunities for educational experiments then we have the potential to derive large value from this new form of outreach.

The final point that I hope you consider is the degree to which MOOCs can improve the face-to-face teaching that both of us so much value. You write that:

"Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate."   

I would ask you about how many face-to-face courses that are still run on campuses across our nation that do not even live up to the experience of the free online course in which you participated? 

If our students can get the experience of watching a professor for free online they will quickly start demanding something better in the classes in which they are paying to attend. Open Yale Courses, and others like these efforts, will force everyone involved in higher ed teaching to step up our games. Any course that is not built around a dialogue between faculty and students will quickly be understood as fundamentally lacking, as pure information transference is available for free, 24/7, on the closest computer, tablet or smart phone.

Yours truly,

Josh.

 

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