Telling tales out of school again: I was at a discussion of online learning at 80th St (CUNY Central) last Friday. We had been asked to read a much publicized, government-sponsored meta-analysis of studies of online and blended learning. In the press (the NY Times for instance), this had been billed as a study that (finally) showed online learning produced even better outcomes classroom-based learning, with blended learning proving better still. I could go into the skepticism the study has inspired, even among advocates of online instruction (see John Sener’s comment on the “good news,” for example), but I’m more interested in where we go from here. I think the premise of the meeting was that now, as never before, we ought to get going with online and blended learning. These alternatives are now established — and the institutional benefits are presumably transparent with enrollments spiking, new faculty hires hitting new records, and students ever more interested/acclimated.

Typically, I was interested in something else entirely. I’ve been doing faculty development for online/blended learning for a decade (and even a fair amount of “administrative development,” if you know what I mean), and so part of me was already feeling “been there/done that.” But I had also prepared for the meeting by looking into what else I might find that was useful. I had read, in addition to the study, recent surveys of online instruction’s growth like the latest annual Sloan-C survey. One point of interest was that, now that an article of faith was established fact (as studies go, anyway), there was still such resistance to online learning, registering as strong doubts about quality, especially from faculty. (A pretty compelling example of the genuine fear online learning inspires in faculty appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Ed a couple weeks ago as “The Dystopia of Distance Learning.“) And slowing growth belied the turned corner. It had been decelerating even as evidence of successful outcomes had been gaining steam.  Now, according to some, it was even stalling. That was in fact what one maven had said in a Reuters release the day before the meeting and picked up by publications like USA Today:

Richard Garrett of Boston consultant Eduventures Inc. said interest in online education may have plateaued for now, awaiting innovations that will transform the experience beyond screen imitations of the brick-and-mortar curriculum.

There seemed to be no intended irony to this appearing immediately under the heading “BELLS AND WHISTLES?” I suppose that was one of the things that made me take notice. For me, the ironies always pointed in the other direction. Who thought classroom teaching so wonderful that it should be the gold standard? Was comparability (or better) the great desideratum? Or should we look to reinvent instruction? When the printing press made teaching something other than transmission through an intermediary, it redefined the roles of clergy and academics. Are we due for another such redefinition?

If we are, I don’t think this can or will happen by awaiting some technological innovation we don’t yet have. And I certainly don’t think it will happen by doing all we can to make online courses the simulacra of classroom-based courses (what we used to call, in the old days, “course conversions”). What will make it happen? I’d like to leave that as a question right now. Even if all I’ve said thus far is mere preamble, and I guess it is, it’s also a lot to wade through. So I’ll give myself some breathing space (and others a chance to weigh in), and try to push this further in the next post.

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