Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Is online education effective?

Updated: May 2021

First let’s define what we mean by “effective.” If we mean, is it possible to learn a subject thoroughly in an online class, then yes. If we mean, is it possible to teach a subject well in an online class, then yes again. If we mean, is online education a worthy replacement for bricks and mortar classrooms in every instance, then the answer is a resounding no.

To think about why, let’s not discuss any of those factors that make teaching and learning ineffective anywhere… like poorly constructed lesson plans, lazy teaching, lack of effort on the part of students… and focus on how the online classroom measures up to the physical classroom.

  • The positives: Online can reach geographically diverse students with much more convenience than classroom learning. It levels the playing field for students by removing the back row, limiting the effect of know-it-alls and quick responders, and it gives all students an opportunity to draft considered responses.
  • The neutrals: Data tend to show no significant difference in student achievement and educational outcomes, in general, between online learning and classroom learning.
  • The negatives: Online takes away social learning opportunities, eliminates most hands-on learning, makes group work and group projects difficult, appeals to a few learning styles, and isolates students to the point that the drop-out rate is very high.

Let’s look at those negatives a little more closely. Without social learning opportunities, you can often lose the key driver that results in, “I want to be like that.” Your favorite teacher, the one who inspired you in middle school or high school or college? That’s much less unlikely to happen online. And without hands-on, in-the-room-with-you guidance, some content can’t be taught very well and some not at all. I wouldn’t recommend a surgeon who only had an online degree. Group work and group projects are the cornerstone of applied learning. Sone group work can be done effectively online, but it's those late-night, pizza-delivery, caffeine-powered foxhole-like projects that produce career-launching experiences.

Covid has changed a lot, but it cannot change some simple facts. Learning is not simply transactional, a binary “you get it or you don’t.” Learning comes in layers, or waves, as understanding deepens. Peers help this process immensely, particularly in project work. Auditory and to some extent visual learners may do well online, but other learning styles can suffer. And then there’s the isolation. This is what most students who are attracted to the the lower cost and higher convenience of online seriously underestimate... That dream of working on your degree at the beach is way too often a mirage. They end up doing hours upon hours of work sitting alone, in the dark, in front of a glowing screen.

This is where blended learning comes in. Coursework online, project work in person. This is also where the flipped classroom comes in. Do the learning of facts on your own, then come together to experiment, discuss, test theories, engage with one another. Opening up classrooms on a limited basis should take all this into account. Wise faculty will take full advantage of every face to face opportunity. Go online for transaction. Come together for transformation.

The bottom line is that online education is not for everything, and it’s not for everyone. But where it works, for whom it works, it works very well.