An editorial I came across in the Toronto Star earlier this week, via a Tweet from Marco Fiola,* pans a discussion paper recently released by the Ontario government. Heather Mallick, the Star columnist who wrote the piece, criticizes various aspects of the discussion paper. She objects, for instance, to the paper’s openness to the Bologna Process, which helps ensure university credits and degrees can be easily recognized by institutions in various countries but which also sets the length of time required to complete an undergraduate university degree to three years. More particularly, though, she is extremely critical of the discussion paper’s emphasis on online learning:
The greatest danger is the report’s warm welcome to online study. It’s one thing to get an online degree if you live in Yellowknife but quite another for the rest of us. You learn from the hard slog of long afternoons spent in classrooms with brilliant people. You learn to read and understand and read further. You learn to evaluate and criticize and think for yourself.
You won’t get this fast, alone and on the cheap, but that is precisely what the government is planning and what employers are hoping for: dumbed down labour for underpaid jobs. Professors should fear it, but students should fear it more. If you want to sit alone in a room for years “studying” online and come out pale, shaky and Fifty Shades of Dim, this report is for you.
But it is not for anyone who values genuine education. […]
I have to say that I was disappointed to see Mallick express such a negative view of online learning. I’ve spent the summer working as an e-learning coach at York University’s Glendon campus, where I teach translation during the fall and winter terms. At the moment, the School of Translation is launching a two-year Master of Conference Interpreting program, the first year of which will be offered online. As the e-learning coach, my job has been to research best practices for online learning and to collaborate with the IT department, a dozen course developers, and the program director to help find ways to adapt exercises, tests, assignments and course content to an online environment. This means I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months researching online learning, and I’ve learned a lot about both its strengths and weaknesses.
So I was disappointed first that Mallick’s editorial didn’t offered a more nuanced critique of the government’s positive view of online learning. After all, the discussion paper recommends:
online degree and diploma options to serve students who prefer to learn online, lifelong learners, and students with dependents who are unable to easily and physically attend campuses
In other words, the discussion paper acknowledges that online learning is not for everyone; however, online courses can be very advantageous for those who enjoy technology, who are looking for a more flexible learning schedule and environment, who may live far from a university or college campus that offers a particular program, etc. Many of the students in the online course I taught last year at Glendon were thrilled to be able to commute to campus one fewer time each week, to be able to (re)watch lectures whenever they wanted, and to submit their homework and responses to discussion questions within a set but flexible deadline. Some, of course, said they would have preferred to have been taught in a traditional classroom, but that just supports the discussion paper’s recommendations to encourage online learning where possible and where desired; some people will always want face-to-face interaction, while others don’t mind, and may even prefer, virtual meetings.
Moreover, taking online courses (and even online degrees) does not, as Mallick contends, prevent students from “learn[ing] from the hard slog of long afternoons spent in classrooms with brilliant people.” (As if brilliant people are not to be found in online courses). Mallick ignores the fact that online learning can take place both synchronously (i.e. with instructors and students meeting together at the same time in a virtual classroom) or asynchronously (i.e. with students and instructors not meeting together at a pre-set time). While both methods allow students to interact with one another, synchronous learning allows students to engage in discussions with their instructors and their peers in real-time, just as they would in a traditional classroom, but with the advantage of being able to do so from home, the office, an Internet café, a park, or anywhere else with a wi-fi connection. Even an online course taught mainly asynchronously allows students to reflect on the course material and engage with their instructor and peers via text (e.g. discussion boards) or audio and video (e.g. podcasts or recorded responses); however, they can do so from home at a time that is most convenient to each student. While it’s true that a discussion that unfolds over the course of a week is very different from one that takes place in person for fifteen minutes or half an hour, this doesn’t mean that online learning is disadvantageous or that online students are not learning to read and think critically. In fact, asynchronous discussions allow a student to reflect on his or her responses for a longer period of time before responding. They also allow a wider range of voices to be heard, since time in the classroom may be limited and not everyone will get a chance to speak.
Mallick also ignores the fact that online and in-the-classroom teaching can be combined into what’s known as blended or hybrid learning. In fact, a 2010 report on online learning published by the US Department of Education concluded that blended learning was often more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction. Although the report cautioned that instructors and content, rather than the method of delivery, largely determine the success of a course, and that blended/hybrid learning was preferable to entirely online courses, it did note that online courses were generally more effective than those taught in person “when students in the online condition were engaged in instructor-led or collaborative instruction rather than independent learning; and when the curricular materials and instruction varied between the online and face-to-face conditions” (2010: 72). I think this conclusion offers a good summary of what is wrong with Mallick’s sweeping condemnation of online learning for “the rest of us”: when an instructor is engaging, students are encouraged to collaborate with their classmates, the course content is intellectually stimulating and the material is delivered effectively, students should be able to “learn to evaluate and criticize and think for [themselves]”, regardless of whether they are studying in a virtual or an online classroom.
*As an aside, I’ve finally started using the Twitter account I had created last year but left dormant for months. I’m @jmdolmaya, in case anyone is interested in following me there.