On “The trouble with online education”

The trouble with online education is that this particular critic of online education hasn’t really experienced the best of online education, yet: The trouble with online education

Type A effects and Type B effects: when is learning online better?

In some ways, the more students you have in a course and the further away the students are from each other, the lower the quality of learning that can take place in that course. The author of that article, Mark Edmundson from UVA, correctly describes a few ways that this can occur. For example, less direct interaction between students and faculty, less ability for faculty to “read the room,” less ability for faculty to develop relationships with their students, etc.  I’ll call these “Type A effects,” see below.

However, he misses several effects that work in the opposite way: the more students and the more spread out the students are, the BETTER the opportunity for the students to learn and grow–“Type B effects.”


First, there are some effects that he falsely categorizes as type A. He correctly points out that it is harder for teachers to respond instantly to students’ mood and engagement level and adjust instruction accordingly if they aren’t in the room at that time (a true type A effect–educational quality is lost by learning online). Certainly this form of “dialogue” is indeed mostly lost in an online course. However, his description of “dialogue” even in a traditional course is not ideal: to him, dialogue is learning about students and adjusting his teaching in response: “Can they grasp the contours of Shakespeare’s plots? If not, it’s worth adding a well-made film version of the next play to the syllabus.”

It is definitely helpful to respond to student strengths and weaknesses (as well as their attitudes, mindsets, experiences, and perspectives) to help them understand the material and this is indeed easier in an in-person class, but learning about students in order to more effectively transfer some course material to them is NOT dialogue (I think Freire would be rolling over in his grave if he read Edmundson’s piece). Dialogue requires an actual two-way street for learning. The instructor needs to be learning from the students, not just about the students for the sake of instructing them better. It’s not fair for Edmundson to criticize online courses for lacking dialogue when his descriptions of his own courses don’t really seem to include much dialogue anyway.

(That being said, developing relationships with students for the sake of better teaching AND for the sake of better learning and development over the long-term is a very strong Type A benefit of smaller in-person classes. The relationship part is key there, but it’s not clear to me how well this is happening in his classes, or in ANY large classes at a university–the contrast between a huge lecture in-person and a huge online course are small here–though a small in-person class may be a different story.)

As an advantage to an online learning community striving for dialogue, I’d guess that teaching an ultra-diverse group of 10,000 students online helps an instructor maintain a certain humbleness in the awareness that probably lots of these students (if not all!) have some information or insights that may in fact expand the instructor’s thinking and perspective. In a few of the online courses I’ve participated in so far, the instructors have explicitly discussed in their lectures some interesting new ideas they had never considered before and which had been brought up by students in the course’s online forums.

Edmundson correctly adds that valuable course-based dialogue takes place not just between students and instructors, but also significantly between students and other students–discussions that continue after class and sometimes lead to the fabled philosophical debates argued while eating pizza in the dining hall. He is right that this is part of a larger worthwhile opportunity to develop a community of learning among the students and instructor in a course. He is wrong that this physical encounter is the only way to do this. In the Coursera classes I’m currently involved in, there are very active online forums for students to discuss topics covered in the class, to ask for clarification, to dispute claims made by other students (or, in many cases, the professor), to try out an argument, and to connect with a diverse group of peers all of whom are studying the same thing at the same time.


Having this forum online makes it EASIER to engage with my classmates since (1) I know exactly where to find them online (not just a few dozen/hundred people from the class mixed in with thousands of others on a huge campus), (2) I can do a better job of thinking through my own reasoning and that of my classmates before responding to something someone says on the forum (and I can more easily back up what I’m saying with some evidence), (3) I can instantly identify the subset of students in the class who are interested in exploring some specific idea more deeply, (4) I can see what everyone else is talking/thinking about.   (A strong Type B effect!)

Peer grading

Another Type B effect is the peer grading that currently takes place in many online courses. Students get feedback on their work from a group of 5 or more peers, and (I think more importantly) get to read and provide feedback on the work of several of their classmates. This is rare in classroom courses, at least right now. There are pretty significant benefits to reading and assessing peers’ work. You get to see what kinds of conclusions your classmates are able to draw from a set of shared experiences in the class. You can see what works about their arguments (and what aspects of their writing styles and mechanics may enhance–or detract from–their point) which helps you better reflect on your own writing for future improvement.

Hyper-diversity of classmates

Another major Type B effect (an educational improvement as class size increases) is the hyper-diversity of classmates with a huge variety in age, economic status, profession, geography, ethnicity, etc. See, for example, this list of about ~1400 of the students in a Coursera class I’m currently doing. It is pretty breathtaking to be sharing an educational journey with that group of people!


If Edmundson is correct that “there was nothing you could get from [the course he had taken online] that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject,” then he was taking a poor online course, or not doing his part to participate and access the huge benefits available. He argues: “A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet [sic] course ever will.” This is simply wrong.

If his overall claim is that an online course is more “sterile,” “abstract,” and inherently inferior to an in-person class, I offer a few more nuanced claims:

1. An online course is undeniably better than nothing. For someone not currently in school for personal or economic reasons or because they have already graduated, taking an online course is certainly better than taking no course. These online courses can expose people to a WIDE range of new thinking that they simply couldn’t access before. They can explore new fields (and maybe even decide to pursue that field more deeply in a more formal setting). Experts in some areas can get an introduction to entirely different fields of study. Many of the biggest advances in human history have emerged this way. Plus, it’s just fun to explore something new just for fun, with no pressure.

2. Possibly depending on the subject,  instructor, and online interface, purely online courses have some advantages over classroom courses (such as many of the Type B effects listed above) AND purely classroom courses have some advantages over online courses (such as the Type A effects). There are pros and cons to each method.

3. An education entirely devoid of in-person learning is inferior to one that includes a substantial amount of in-person learning AND an education entirely devoid of online learning is also inferior to one that includes at least some online learning. A solid education requires the ability to access some of the pros of in-person learning AND some of the pros of online learning. I don’t know what the ideal balance is.
That online learning is inherently flawed to the degree that major universities should try to entirely sidestep it seems indefensible.

Does anyone disagree with claim 1, 2, or 3? Why? Any other insights to add?

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1 Response to On “The trouble with online education”

  1. Pingback: Effects of repeating content in future courses | Having New Eyes

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