The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published a special report on Online Learning. Part of this issue involved asking individuals in the field the following question: Has the Quality of Online Learning Kept Up With Its Growth? Responses printed were from Elliott Masie, Alexander McCormick, Robert Mendenhall, Janet Salmons, Carol Twigg, and myself. You need to subscribe to read some of the content. I was however, given permission to post my response publicly, so here it is:

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the world saw the rise of a method of instruction called the monitorial or Lan­casterian method. This approach involved advanced students’ assisting their less-advanced colleagues in what amounted to modern-day tutoring sessions. Was the method effective? While it eventually fell out of favor, initial reactions varied. On the one hand, the approach allowed increased access to education. On the other, it could lead to poor learning experiences.

A few hundred years later, we face a similar dilemma: Has the quality of online-education offerings kept up with growth? Is the method effective? The answer is still the same: Yes and no. Over all, learning at a distance has dramatically improved during the last 15 years. The problems facing the traditional distance-learning model (e.g., feelings of isolation on the part of learners and instructors) can now be efficiently dealt with via participatory Internet technologies. Yet examples of outstanding online learning are hard to find. While social technologies enable the adoption of student-centered pedagogies, we remain faithful to our didactic approaches.

Nevertheless, we live in exciting times. I am encouraged because I see around me a desire to innovate and question cultural norms that may have hindered technology-enhanced education.

At the same time, three dominant narratives surrounding online learning concern me. These are:

  • Online learning versus face-to-face learning. The tendency to compare the two prevents us from seeing the unique opportunities offered by online learning. While I understand the desire to compare, I would prefer to spend our energy on improving education rather than comparing what should be inherently different approaches.
  • The latest technology as a panacea. To improve online learning, we need to stop thinking of technology as a tool to solve problems and start rethinking the ways we teach. While newer technologies may shape some of those ways, we need to evaluate our approaches, reconsider teacher/student roles, and assess the purposes of education and the meaning of learning in technology-rich environments.
  • Delivering education to the masses. Unfortunately, online learning is often seen as a way to deliver education to large numbers of students. The narrative of online education as a product to be delivered harms education. We need to think of online education as an experience, and the instructor as the designer of that experience—an experience that can be fulfilling, engaging, and powerful.