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It is time to stop asking if online learning is as “effective” as traditional face-to-face learning. The question has been asked and answered. Asking it over and over again will not yield the responsive, localized, and collaborative answers we need to facilitate meaningful education for an increasingly diverse body of learners.

Teaching and learning work best when faculty, instructional staff, and students are invested and engaged. What is often lost when we ask the “effective” question is that investment and engagement are modality-independent qualities. The educational ecosystem teachers and students need in the decades to come must involve both online and face-to-face expressions. Tethering “effective” teaching and learning to a particular modality restricts the strategic implementation of research-driven pedagogy across college and university offerings.

To support my claim, I pursue two points. First, online education is growing, and this growth poses no substantive risk to student learning. Second, a logic of legitimacy drives the stigma that bars integration of online learning into higher education’s core mission.

The “effective” question is rooted in fear of disruption. We need to recognize and acknowledge continuity instead.

Online education is growing. Fast. And there is no established scholarly consensus that online education poses substantive risk to the attainment of student learning outcomes.

In College (Un)Bound, Jeffrey Selingo reports the number of students enrolled in at least one online course grew from 1.6 million in 2002 to 6.1 million on 2010 (Selingo 97). I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman’s Grade Change presents similar data, showing enrollment in at least one online course reaching 7.1 million in 2012 (Allen and Seaman 15).

Rapid growth means online learning, like distance before it, feels the burden of proving its effectiveness in relation to traditional practice. This burden has taken many forms. Most visible are the meta-analyses, aggregating data from dozens or hundreds of studies exploring various metrics of “effective.”

The controversial U.S. Department of Education-funded meta analysis, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (2009, revised in 2010), is one such endeavor, along with others like Joseph Cavanaugh and Stephen Jacquemin’s “A Large Sample Comparison of Grade Based Student Learning Outcomes in Online vs. Face-to-Face Courses” from 2015. Overwhelmingly, results lean toward a familiar refrain -- “no significant difference” -- a conclusion common enough to have become a genre of its own.

Continuing to ask the “effective” question dilutes resources for no clear gain. If the quantities of available data on “effectiveness” equivalency have failed to break down enduring resistance at faculty and institutional levels, what will? This leads me to my next point.

Stigma and perception drive resistance to online education more than data analysis and direct experience.

Inside Higher Ed’s survey Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012 asked faculty and administrators to share their “Thoughts on the Growth of Online Education.” 57.7 percent of faculty felt “more fear than excitement,” versus 42.3 percent “more excitement than fear.” The differential was greater for administrators, at 19.8 percent “more fear” and 80.2 percent “more excitement” (Conflicted 5).

Consider these response options, for a moment. Fear and excitement? This should give us pause. Shouldn’t we be asking how faculty and instructional staff can reorient their pedagogical and institutional strategies to be more on-the-ground, more student-centered, and less focused on their own feelings?

Another Inside Higher Ed survey, Faculty Attitudes on Technology 2015, measured responses to the proposition “for-credit online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses.” The study found that, overall, 9 percent of faculty could “strongly agree” with the proposition, whereas 27 percent could “strongly disagree” (Straumsheim 12). But, when separated by levels of experience teaching online, the responses shift.

For faculty who have never taught online, “strongly agree” falls from 9 percent to 4 percent and “strongly disagree” increases from 27 percent to 35 percent. For faculty who have taught at least one online course, “strongly agree” grows from 9 percent to 19 percent, and, more dramatically, “strongly disagree” falls from 27 percent to 11 percent (Straumsheim 14). Direct experience cuts through stigma: When faculty and instructional support staff are invested and engaged, online education works.

This research reveals just how mired in the logic of symbolic legitimacy and cultural capital online teaching and learning truly is. Through direct experience, educators and administrators will more confidently build agile and responsive teaching and learning spaces that serve the changing needs of their student populations.

“Effectiveness” is, in the end, built on a shaky premise, that traditional face-to-face teaching is monolithically consistent. We know it is not. A well-designed and carefully delivered online course will facilitate more meaningful learning for more students than a poorly designed 300-student lecture section. The real problem educators and administrators face is how to leverage the considerable historical legitimacy of the university to destigmatize online learning and continue producing relevant and useful educational experiences for their students.

Faculty, administration, and instructional support staff should work together to encourage student-centered design at each stage of the curricular and course development process, regardless of educational modality.

They should also recognize that it is the urgent responsibility of all constituents invested in college and university teaching and learning to make visible the good work being done right now in developing online educational experiences across higher education and to provide space for continuing faculty investment and experimentation.

Online education aspires to more than the predatory neo-liberal nightmare its harshest critics make it out to be. While there are many questions yet to be answered, online education is promising, effective, and vital to the health of contemporary college and universities.

Works Cited:

Allen, I. Elaine and Jeff Seaman. Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group LLC, 2014.

Allen, I. Elaine, Jeff Seaman, Doug Lederman, and Scott Jaschik. Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012. Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, 2012.

Cavanaugh, Joseph K. and Stephen J. Jacquemin. “A Large Sample Comparison of Grade Based

Student Learning Outcomes in Online vs. Face-to-Face Courses.” Online Learning, vol. 19, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1-8.

Selingo, Jeffrey. College (Un)Bound. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Straumsheim, Carl, Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, Faculty Attitudes on Technology 2015. Gallup and Inside Higher Ed, 2015.


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