Online Learning Expresses Academic Tradition
Robert J. Sternberg, the chief academic officer at Oklahoma State University, published an article recently that argued online learning has limitations and can’t fully replace face-to-face education.
The article appeared as editorial commentary on NewsOK.com, and it stated it was written in connection with other academic officers, including presidents, within the OSU system. In the article, Provost Sternberg outlines five major areas in which “online learning can't fully provide five major functions of higher education . . .”.
As a college professor who has taught online classes for nearly a decade, I believe Sternberg’s conclusions are, for the most part, inaccurate, and I wonder if the overall anti-technology philosophy and tone expressed in the article aren’t somewhat archaic. More importantly, I worry that our Oklahoma college students will fall behind if Sternberg’s views about online learning become the accepted wisdom throughout the state’s higher education system.
Consequently, I want to address the five areas Sternberg brings up that he argues show the limitations of online learning.
“Learning as a conversation.” Sternberg’s point here is that the Socratic method of education—teachers and students engaging in intellectual discourse and critical inquiry together—can’t be fully emulated in the online classroom. I think that’s untrue. It’s my experience that I can actually engage more with students in online courses through discussion boards, emails, chat, blogs and even social networks than I can in the limitations and time frames of regular classroom courses. I think students can refine and record their arguments more specifically in an online course through writing. I also think many students, who might not participate fully in a class discussion in a regular classroom, are more comfortable doing so in an online course.
“Tacit knowledge.” The argument here is that online learning can’t fully provide the personal interaction that is necessary to teach what Sternberg calls the “hidden curriculum.” Here again, I believe Sternberg misses the mark. Online courses not only can provide personal interaction, but they can do so within a dynamic system of web-based platforms that will undoubtedly emulate what many students will use in their careers and, well, in many aspects of their lives. Sternberg makes the point that “regulating one's emotions” is one thing many students can learn through face-to-face academic interaction, but how will they learn to work on a team in which the primary communication is through emails, video conference calls and content management systems? How do you regulate your emotions or communicate in that context?
“Networking.” The argument here is that students need face-to-face contact to develop “networks of personal relationships” that will make them successful. Surely, Sternberg considered Facebook and other social networking sites and applications—group text messaging, email threads with friends—before he made this argument. How can you even use the word “networking” and not think of Facebook. It’s telling that he chose not to mention any of it. Online learning, at its core, helps students develop the type of networking skills to not only become successful in the twenty-first century but to also become engaged citizens.
“Role modeling and personal mentorship.” Here again the argument is online education doesn’t allow for personal relationships. I find that to be the exact opposite in my online classes, and I have personally mentored students in my online classes. Students work with me on learning management systems that offer a full array of communication opportunities, and I try to model a blend of personal and professional discourses in what I believe are the prevailing and most important modes of communication of our time. It’s difficult to separate role modeling and personal mentorship from prevailing modes of communication in a culture, but Sternberg and the entire OSU administration apparently sees such a separation.
"Hands-on experience." The argument that online learning can’t fully provide hands-on experience is probably the best argument Sternberg makes. It’s true that there are academic endeavors that need face-to-face interaction, such as field or laboratory work, but even here one has to consider how much technology will change how we view many academic disciplines and learning experiences in the future. I think Sternberg makes a statement here that’s too broad and which lacks an appreciation and even basic wonderment for technological advances in the future. Who really knows what we might be able to do online in, say, fifty or a hundred years? That question is one that should help drive the intellectual inquiry at any university right now.
I concede that the lack of face-to-face contact can be problematic in some online courses, but it’s not insurmountable, and it’s getting easier and easier to develop academic and personal relationships through web-based platforms. I also concede that universities should offer a blend of traditional and online courses, but it’s also important to note that online courses open up more space and save electricity at universities.
I also realize that edX, the free online course system founded by a Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Coursera, another free course site operated by a consortium of universities, have caused worry among higher-education administrators throughout the country. The question for them becomes this: If in the future students can easily take online courses from well-esteemed professors from the nation’s best universities, what effect will that have on enrollment down the road at institutions such as OSU?
I understand the dilemma, but re-entrenchment into tradition and nostalgia is simply not an option. As an academic who earned his Ph.D. at OSU, I hope my alma mater does just the opposite of what seems to be Sternberg’s underlying message. The OSU system should embrace online learning here and elsewhere, with all its potential, even if it means fundamental changes in the academic environment.