The Trouble with “The Trouble with Online Education”

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, has an op-ed in today’s NY Times called The Trouble with Online Education. I can’t pass up the opportunity to make a quick critique, as he makes a critical error in his piece – assuming that the employment of a particular pedagogy or method of content delivery is always the same and has the same results:

“the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. …they deploy something tantamount to artistry.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.”

Really, Professor Edmundson? My experience in college was that the large lectures were awful and attendance was low because the notes were available elsewhere. Sure, Michael Sandel can keep an audience, and there’s a line out the door for his class, but let’s face it, few lecturers are Michael Sandel. Maybe you are, but don’t make the mistake that anyone else is that good. Large lecture is more often than not the one-size-fits-all you claim all online education is.

I’ve been teaching online for the last two school years, and my experience is not that class is a monologue. Rather, I communicate individually with my students as much or more than I do in my brick-and-mortar classes. We engage in conversation about course content and discuss their progress as learners. To say all online learning looks like a massive cookie-cutter lecture is wrong.

We’re going to have to endure op-eds like this for awhile, as fearful and self-important university professors tell us the way they’ve always done things is superior to anything else. From what I can tell, these reactions are typical when an industry is being disrupted by a new technology. Some of the criticisms of online education will be spot-on, but many will make assumptions that demonstrate a lack of understanding. And some of the assertions will be over the top:

“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.” [emphasis added]

Do some research about online learning, Professor Edmundson, I think you’ll find lots of people expressing joy about their experiences.

You can start with my online students’ reflection blog if you like.

Distinguishing the Open part of Massive Open Online Courses

With the news of Coursera adding 12 new universities, the blogosphere erupted yesterday with stories of disruption, the end of Higher Ed as we know it, and some tentative hope for general social improvement. Not lost on a few bloggers though was the important point to note that Coursera isn’t really offering MOOCs, in the way that the approach was designed originally by George Siemens and Steven Downes. Massive Open Online Courses meant that the resources were, well, open to anyone and open to use thereafter. Audrey Watters points out the Coursera difference:[blackbirdpie url=”″%5D
Indeed, it appears the openness of the Coursera courses is that anyone can join, and NOT that the resources are openly available. But full open enrollment is a powerful thing, mind you. According to an email I received from Coursera last night, the potential to educate people everywhere is emerging:[blackbirdpie url=”″%5D
So, let’s distinguish open in the context of Coursera, as opposed to the openness of the Siemens/Downes model (or like this MOOC upcoming on Mobile Learning): Coursera = open-enrollment/closed-resources, Siemens/Downes-style MOOCs = completely open.

Is there virtue to making all the course resources open? For one, teachers like me could use the excellent elements of a Coursera course in my own classroom. Or people anywhere who weren’t able to enroll in the Coursera course at the time of its offering could take the course when they’re able. Open Education Resources (OER) remain available on the web, for the good of all of us. If the 17 Coursera partners were to commit to making the courses this open, we’d all need to stand and applaud the impact for good they would make.

I think there is some hope for more openness from Coursera than it may seem though. I was curious about a course that looks remarkably similar to the one I’m paying for at the University of Edinburgh in September. The free “E-learning and Digital Cultures” course will be an innovative study of “how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through ‘narratives’, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology.” And, importantly, it’s a wee bit more open than other Coursera offerings:

E-learning and Digital Cultures will make use of online spaces beyond the Coursera environment, and we want some aspects of participation in this course to involve the wider social web. We hope that participants will share in the creation of course content and assessed work that will be publicly available online.

How much of the work of this Edinburgh Coursera course eventually goes onto the open web is yet to be seen. That participants will be producing work for all to see is a hopeful sign however. If the model works well (and of course it will), perhaps it will push other instructors to make their resources more open.

I for one welcome Coursera as an emerging positive force in the education marketplace, despite a host of reservations. When it becomes more open, many of my reservations will melt away.