Dispelling Myths about Online Ed

February 24th, 2010

I need to be careful, and not just because one person’s myth is another person’s religion. I was motivated to post on this because of a commentary piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed titled  “Combating Myths About Distance Education.” My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes, thinking “Oh no, not again.” One of the great myths is that “distance education” is an appropriate term for online education (and not, increasingly, a misnomer). But an even greater myth is that whatever-you-call-it is easy to define (and so to combat or dispel whatever one regards as myths about it): all you need to do, according to this myth, is tell the truth, and the scales will fall from the eyes of the unbelievers (or believers, depending on your perspective).

Well, the truth is that things get more blurred all the time. Is online ed about distance or local outreach? (Increasingly, it’s the latter.) Is the true point of contrast face-to-face? (Then what about the single biggest growth area, hybrid or blended learning?) Is it all about asynchronous interaction — a sentiment so widely shared at one time that it made sense to call the biggest journal in the field the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks? (Then what about all the work with synchronous interaction, especially in the very course management systems and programs that used to be wholly asynchronous?) And then there’s the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Ed has never been friendly to online ed, loving to invoke specters of diploma mills, spy cams, and faculty being automated out of existence, all of which is just plain silly.

So I didn’t expect much from the article. I was pleasantly surprised. I can’t say it was full of revelations, but it resisted easy generalizations and stereotypes. The real gripe of the author, a librarian at Yale who teaches a variety of library and literary studies courses online, is that he gets no respect — senses that online ed people are the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education. Memorably, he noted that one “big state university” he taught for “does not even acknowledge its online instructors as members of the faculty on its Web page. In the department’s eyes, I am, like Pinocchio, not a ‘real boy.'”

There were things in the article I disagreed with, inevitably. For instance, he draws an easy distinction between undergraduate and graduate instruction that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is another thing that’s blurring, and blurring because of online ed (and what access to the internet does to the need for instruction as “information transfer”). Inevitably, to make his point, he restored to generalizations, even stereotypes.

So what amazed me most — what motivated me to go online and post about this — was one of those generalizations I did not take exception to. In fact, I’m not sure it is a generalization with exceptions — which, of course, violates the general rule for generalizations. In contrasting online with face-to-face instruction (and the possibility, even invitation, posed by the latter to let the student sit there passively in the classroom), he says that when students  “take good courses online, they are required to be full partners in their learning process.” I realize you have to stress that key word “good” there, but, if you do, that holds — and so does the contrast if you insist you’re comparing it with good F2F instruction: there are simply too many barriers to full partnership in the classroom, like the impossibility of everyone answering a discussion question almost any time one’s posed (a standard expectation in online instruction).

So I came with low expectations, but seem to have found a real touchstone. Or should someone tell me to take my rose-colored glasses off?

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