Magazine Article

It’s not magic but it can be fun
Faculty Perspectives on Online Education

By Jennifer Eagan
CFA Chapter President, East Bay
Philosophy/Public Affairs & Administration

I taught my first fully online class during the Winter Quarter of 2008. I decided to reengineer an “on ground” course that I had developed within one of my areas of specialization, Feminist Philosophy.

My twin motivations at the time were simple: curiosity and wanting the course to have a broader reach and attract more students.

I don’t think that any of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department were very enthusiastic about online teaching and learning, though they all used web-based resources in their on-ground classes. I think that Philosophy as a discipline particularly cherishes face-to-face verbal encounters, debates in real time, and the experience of being able to have a genuine human exchange.

While all of the colleagues in my department thought that online significantly diminished the dialogue that lies at the heart of our discipline, they supported me in giving it a try.

Since then I also have developed two hybrid classes. I enjoy teaching online but, then again, I enjoy all teaching. I have found that online teaching and learning has certain benefits both for me and for students—and it has some costs. It’s not magic but it can be a lot of fun.

The biggest advantage of online learning, particularly in the humanities, is that students write a lot.

Practically all of their communication is written so they can be “forced” to participate and engage in interactive activities in a way that is difficult to do in an on-ground classroom without being mean or creating anxiety.

However, this advantage is lost in online classes where student tasks are automated and the specific feedback from the professor is paltry.

Online classes open up opportunities for “non-traditional” students who are working (particularly shift work), parenting, caretaking, etc. One student taking my online Feminist Philosophy class always posted in the very early morning hours and, at one point, shared with me that her husband said that she could go to school as long as it didn’t affect her duties to him or to their children. I guess that’s why she took Feminist Philosophy.

I was very glad that she had the opportunity to take the class and flattered that she apparently thought that the class was more important than sleep.

However, online classes are not for everyone. They have high attrition rates and require discipline on the part of both the students and the instructors. Regular assignments and reasons to check into the class keep everyone engaged but are also demanding on students’ time.

To the good of online learning, the technology keeps getting better and the number of open-source materials available on the web keep getting better.

However, teaching an online class is more work and less personally rewarding to the instructor and often for students as well. I have found that everyone misses the stimulation of real face-to-face interaction. To help combat this con, experimenting with new technologies can keep things exciting and fun, and using live chat and very active discussion boards can help keep both the instructor and students engaged.

Online classes can cultivate independent and active learning by putting the onus of finding and analyzing material on the student.

Done right, online teaching can be a good way to mentor students on meaningful projects and for students to get peer feedback on their work.

However, based on my experience and discussions with colleagues who teach online, the more inexperienced, underprepared and vulnerable the student, the less successful she or he is likely to be online.

Some administrators are pushing for remediation online; this seems like a terrible idea.

Online learning for more experienced students can be really exciting and foster constructive independence from their instructors. I find that Philosophy majors do pretty well online because they are already interested in the material.

The lecture and testing model of higher education kind of stinks, and online teaching done well encourages us to get away from the non-interactive lecture. Yet, online education can easily degenerate into the “faculty member as information delivery system” just as much as a course that features all in-class lectures.

There is a culture of distaste for traditional teaching and learning (and teachers) that fuels the hope that online courses and MOOCs can revolutionize education.

Teaching and learning are basically the same everywhere and some of the rush to online fails to take into account the importance of already prepared students and qualified professors who are experts in their fields.

Online teaching done well can be a vehicle for quality student writing, innovation, independent thinking, and creative projects. It also can encourage pedagogical innovation and access for students who can’t take face-to-face courses.

Online teaching and learning is not magic. Courses are courses, and the general rules for quality teaching (being present, interacting with students, and providing personal feedback) remain the same regardless of platform.

Online education is certainly not a panacea for the problems of access, equity, and cost. If done poorly, online higher education could exacerbate some of these problems.

For example, many students get lost in anonymous online environments. Sometimes, administrators wrongly think that “online course” means that the demand alone should determine the number of students in the class.

Also, some students do not have access to adequate computers and high-speed internet connections.

The drive to dismantle public higher education could ruin what’s good about online teaching and make it into a corporately packaged, low quality, banking system for bits of information.

Faculty-controlled online courses and programs can resist this trend; students know quality when they experience it.