In Defense of Online Education

Last Friday, The New York Times published an op-ed by Mark Edmundson titled “The Trouble With Online Education,” in which the UVA professor criticizes many universities’ focus on developing distance learning tools and programs and argues that an online education will always be inferior to a “real” course.

“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”

Edmundson’s primary argument is that an online course cannot foster dialogue.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Edmundson seems to have a notion of an online course primarily being a taped version of a class or lecture that takes place in real space. And he is certainly correct that this sort of class, no matter how charismatic the lecturer, would not necessarily be the best way to foster conversation and discussion. However, this is a limited perception of what an online course can be. At the School of Visual Arts, where I am the Director of Operations of the MFA Art Practice Program, a low-residency graduate program that combines online learning with three intensive summer residency periods, I’ve worked and continue to work closely with our faculty and instructional designers to create dynamic, interactive online courses that cultivate both critical discourse and a sense of community among their participants.

Our online courses, delivered through Moodle, an open source CMS, include written lectures, videos, image slideshows, diagrams, and other supporting materials. There is a discussion board for each week’s session, in which participants are required to post responses to the material and to each other in the form of images, videos and written content. We also provide opportunities for live interaction and collaboration via Adobe Connect, a web-conferencing application. In short, these are rich-media classes that encourage, and in fact require, interaction and dialogue among all participants, including students and faculty.

Are the conversations in these classes the same as the conversations that would take place if these classes were held in real, rather than virtual space? Of course not. However, that doesn’t mean that the dialogue spawned from these online courses is inferior to that which takes place in an actual space. In fact, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the same students in both virtual learning environments and “real” classrooms. Although discussions in a virtual classroom lack the spontanaeity of those in an actual classroom, it presents an opportunity for a more reflective and contemplative conversation. The online classroom slows everything down, and that can be positive. These courses don’t privilege intrepid, self-assured, assertive speakers. The discussion board gives equal weight to the voices of students who are shy, or not quick and confident speakers, or for whom English is not their first language. Online courses encourage participants to think about the material in a focused way before articulating a clear and thoughtful response. There’s also a generosity present in discussions that isn’t always possible in a real classroom: responses to materials often include original writing as well as quotes and links to other relevant texts, images, and videos. This is especially valuable in the context of fine art critiques: each student receives essays about their work from their peers, often complete with images and links to further reference material. This level of peer to peer engagement and critical discourse is one I’ve rarely witnessed in the actual classroom. What’s more, a finished course becomes a multi-media journal, an archive of lectures, notes, discussion threads and citations, and is a tool that one can continually go back and reference.

For an art student, an online education means that one doesn’t take a break from “real life” for two years to pursue a degree, but instead integrates the reading, writing, reflection, and making required by the online courses into one’s life. It gives one the flexibility to participate in a rigorous program and simultaneously have a family, work, travel, and/or participate in residencies. There is value to both the traditional MFA and low-res/ distance learning model. Indeed, I graduated from a traditional MFA program and I treasure the time I had there to simply make and think about art. I do, however, recognize that this set up an artificial paradigm for establishing my art practice as  most artists are not able to support themselves fully with their artwork and must find ways to balance art making and day jobs.

Distance learning also allows one to explore an expanded sense of place. When done well, it can cultivate a global community. People from all over the world can come together, in a virtual space, to read and discuss, to collaborate and make and critique. Ultimately, the “art world” is not a municipality or a market, but a conversation, and online education can help to further the discussion.

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Filed under Academia, Art, Education

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