Like Christopher Schaberg, I use the internet for a lot of things. I also use the analog and face-to-face world for a lot of things. I've published stories and scholarship only available printed on paper, I've promoted my work to others in person and I chat with friends, students and colleagues in face-to-face settings almost every day. I do my banking by seeing an old-fashioned teller at my university's credit union, and I sometimes even shop at the mall.
But unlike Schaberg, I teach online and have been doing so for years.
I understand the value of traditional face-to-face course offerings for certain courses and certain subjects. I doubt an online course in pottery making or chemistry can ever be as effective as face-to-face versions of those courses held in an art studio or a lab. Fortunately, I teach writing and rhetoric, and the internet is an effective place for teaching subjects that call for careful reading, discussion and written analysis.
It is true that there are things I cannot do in my classes on the internet. It is also true, however, that there are things I cannot do in my classes held in traditional classrooms. In my experience, asking if face-to-face classes are better than online courses (or vice versa) is irrelevant. The real question is about affordances: What works better or worse in face-to-face classes rather than in online courses, and vice versa?
For example, while I get to know my students in different ways in face-to-face classes as opposed to in online, I do get to know them in both settings -- up to a point. My experience has taught me to not overestimate how well I “know” any of my students, regardless of the delivery format of the course. Because most of the students in my online classes are local, I am just as likely to schedule an appointment to help a student in an online class as I am to help a student from a face-to-face class.
It is true that part of what we’re training students to do in college is to work well with actual people. But it is at least as important to educate students about the subtle cues and intangible qualities of how we present ourselves online differently from how we present ourselves in person. In other words, working well with others increasingly means effectively using online spaces to communicate.
One of the affordances I value most in my online classes is the necessity for everyone to participate in order to demonstrate their presence. In my face-to-face classes, a student can sit quietly and appear to be engaged in the discussion without ever offering a thought or opinion. Online, I consider a student who sits quietly but who does not participate in the discussion board for the assigned reading or activity to be simply not present. Further, students in face-to-face classes who are too shy or who are talked over by quicker and louder voices have the chance to engage in an online discussion, which gives them an opportunity to pause to collect their thoughts so they can contribute equally to conversations.
When I teach online, my students and I can be inside or outside and we can sit wherever and however we want. In Michigan, where a winter storm can make commuting to campus hazardous or even impossible, the ability to be in class from the comfort of wherever you live or wherever you can get internet access is an enormous advantage. When the weather is not nice, I often teach while sitting in a local coffee shop. When the weather is nice, I often teach while sitting in the shade of the giant pines in my backyard.
In fact, it’s the flexibility of time and space in online courses that both my students and I value the most. It is true that many of my students in online courses would prefer taking a traditional face-to-face version of the course, but circumstances often prevent them from doing so. Most of my online students are also taking courses on campus, and they are taking some classes online as a way of balancing complicated college/work/life schedules. Some of my online students have very young children or have moved away from the area, and without the opportunity to take classes online, they would not finish their degrees.
I can write good letters of recommendations for students I’ve only had in online courses. In fact, one of the advantages of such recommendations is that they are always based entirely on the work the student did for the class, and not on some intangible face-to-face interaction.
Like Schaberg, I should acknowledge that my tenured position gives me the relative safety from which to take this strong stance toward online education. I am not being required to teach online against my preferences or with no training, a situation that is far too common, particularly at community colleges and for faculty members not on the tenure track. But unlike Schaberg, I teach at a large and regional university, one where a significant percentage of our students cannot afford the luxuries offered at smaller, private universities. As part of our opportunity-granting mission, we have an obligation to meet students where they are in their lives. Offering online courses is one part of that mission.
Finally, online learning isn’t “the future” or a trend that might or might not be “here to stay.” It has been happening in higher education in the U.S. for decades. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all current college students across all sectors have taken at least one online course, and those percentages are considerably higher at community colleges and public universities. There is every reason to believe that those percentages will increase, too.
I agree with Schaberg when he suggests that online education is not a “recipe for individual success, a sort of platonic achievement.” Then again, I’m not sure traditional face-to-face education is such a recipe, either.