Online Courses: Mainstreaming the Phoenix Model of Inferior Education

I have been discouraged, to say the least, about recent liberal budgetary and academic trends in higher education — including some at Towson University — that severely diminish comprehensive universities’ faculty and educational excellence. I may touch on others in future postings.

What follows is adapted from an article addressing just one of those trends, an article just published (with a great cartoon, parenthetically) in the The Faculty Voice. The piece is reprinted herein with the editor’s permission.


— Richard E. Vatz

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Professor Helene Cohen’s recent Faculty Voice article, “Online Learning’s Human Dimension,” with no caveats supports online classes and learning. A professor writing seriously about a major paradigmatic change in higher education for a relevant academic audience has the obligation not to write a one-sided persuasive piece, but to address the best arguments for the status quo paradigm, traditional learning, disinterestedly.

I am not an expert on the advantages of traditional learning vis-à-vis online learning, but there are several points unaddressed or inadequately addressed in the Cohen piece. I shall leave aside the serious issues of security and of cheating – devastating problems lo they be — and I shall just focus on the educational value of the two modes of online learning and traditional learning.

Professor Cohen’s article argues that “online courses are here to stay” and that they are more and more widely used. That is no doubt true, as is Professor Cohen’s point that “they can actually contribute to the human dimension of learning.” The fact that such classes are supported – even widely — in the marketplace and have more than nothing to add to learning is hardly a ringing endorsement, however.

The article also argues that such classes are convenient and less expensive, all financial slam-dunks for administrative supporters of on-line courses.

On key educational values, the arguments for online courses fall woefully short. In addressing the classroom environment, an environment in which I have witnessed fascinating interaction and consequential insight and growth among students and faculty for decades, Professor Cohen counters that some shy students don’t interact much and others may not be paying attention. This is hardly compensatory for the lack of significant, symbiotic intellectual development, development that occurs for only a small cohort of students in online classes.

Professor Cohen says her “students consider social networks to be true, meaningful social interactions.” Right, and some of my students believe that if you miss 10 classes and do all right on exams that it must mean that you lose nothing substantive through excessive absences.

Professor Cohen raves about the possibility of extending online classes to include guests, but that is certainly not incompatible with a traditional class experience, wherein such participation is far more advantageous.

The effect of the group learning experience, witnessing substantive oral interaction in-person, is so superior to the on-line lack of community that it is hard to believe that the latter’s supporters, absent the economic motivation, are serious about the value of online classes.

When I witness students who struggle with and then apprehend political rhetoric after two and one-half hours of give-and-take in an electrified class atmosphere, I sympathize with students who may try to understand such matters online.

A colleague of mine with significant experience in online courses at Ohio University agrees with the gravamen of my criticism of online courses, but does maintain that such courses offer more of an opportunity than a face-to-face classroom to examine and re-examine “a teacher’s verbatim words.” As I have indicated, to make an overwhelming comparative advantages case for traditional learning courses over online courses does not require proving the latter is 100% bereft of value. My bud agrees.

There are always economical shortcuts in education, but I had always assumed that the purveyors knew how they shortchanged students educationally. A 3-week minimester philosophy class for 3 credits in ethics? Is there a serious professor or administrator who believes that offers learning equivalent to a 15-week class meeting two or three times a week? (By the way, Professor Cohen, the most frequent model for a “traditional class” is not one meeting “once a week.”)

Yes, online classes are here to stay, and they are cost-savers and they are not literally without value for all students. They also compromise the learning of students who will be falsely accredited and sold a bill of goods to save some money.

That, unfortunately, is the new paradigm in many universities.

Professor Vatz is the longest-serving member of Towson’s University Senate

(The Faculty Voice is published quarterly at College Park and
distributed to all faculty members and many staff members in
the University System of Maryland – plus some state and
local officials as well as friends of The Faculty Voice.)

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