Critiquing Online Learning, Part One

by Jason Fertig

As a professor on the front lines of distance education, I have to respond to Thomas K. Lindsay’s series of posts that defend online learning (parts one and two). More online education is coming, so it’s best to embrace it. But I have to push back against claims that such education is better and cheaper. 

Sure, some people do learn better without a classroom — I’m enjoying Hillsdale’s Constitution 101 course — but online learning is like working out at home: There are plenty of tools and resources to build buns of steel in a living room, but a good number of home treadmills become coat racks. Proving that something can be done is not the same as proving that something will happen.

Lindsay supports his favorable view of online education by citing a conclusion from a 2009 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of online learning:

Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.

This statement is too ambiguous for building an argument; it appears to conflate online and hybrid pedagogy. There is a world of difference between “all” and “part” of a course online. Any course labeled hybrid, blended, etc. is essentially a live course because it adds in that all-important face-to-face contact. That Department of Education report in question even affirms that notion. The complete statement of results is as follows:

The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.

Unfortunately, calls for more online education tend to push for a more efficient way to get pieces of paper to people who cannot physically get to campus, not a more efficient way to utilize the three hours of weekly class time. 

I agree that online done right can yield some benefits, but let’s not glamorize it more than necessary. There are plenty of problems that need to be acknowledged. With that in mind, in my part two, I will look at the issues of lower costs and student motivations.