My anti-online education soapbox

This is taken from an email I wrote to a friend of mine:

I am very nervous about what will happen to education in the future.  Online schools are cheaper and allow students to progress at their own pace, but they do not build relationships, improve social skills, or react flexibly/instantaneously to student struggles. Furthermore, the fact that online courses are so popular is an indictment of most schools – if teachers are just information distribution centers (ie: lecture and powerpoint) then online info distribution replaces them easily and effectively.  However, if teachers are actively pushing student thinking, forcing them to explain, questioning their decisions, providing real world situations and scaffolding student learning, then the online version cannot replace teachers.  Unfortunately, most teachers are fact oriented rather than critical thinking oriented.

My fear is that education is too far gone from the goal of creating critical thinkers and so entrenched in a system of hoop jumping that modifying those hoops for a digital world makes sense – it is cheaper and faster.  Many people will say online systems can react (but usually that reaction is simply providing an easier or more difficult fact based question).  A machine cannot assess true creativity/ingenuity. Others might argue that message boards or social media can allow for teacher-student interaction.  True, but the economic push will be to have one teacher for several hundred students, making it impossible for anything but “hoop jumping”.  Not to mention that a lack of true relationship will hinder any teachers ability to meet ALL of their students learning needs.  We need to be aware of where we are going.  The decisions educators make now will have drastic effects on the cultures of tomorrow.

I want to be clear, I am NOT anti-technology, but I AM anti-hoop jumping the curriculum.

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18 Responses to My anti-online education soapbox

  1. Angel says:


    You’ve raised some very valid points in this post, and I think your overall assessment of the current state of online education gets to the heart of a much bigger issue.

    As we hear reports of US education standards purportedly trailing behind those of other advanced nations—specifically in math and science—it is easy to fall into the “standardization” trap. Touting the merits of standardized, online education as a panacea for our educational shortcomings can lead us down a slippery slope.

    Your fear that education may be straying too far from “the goal of creating critical thinkers and so entrenched in a system of hoop jumping” is certainly valid, and I believe this is where we must approach the problem strategically.

    Online instruction will never replace in-class instruction, no matter how advanced the technology becomes. However, online education certainly has its place, and this is something that we are trying to address at, where I am currently interning.

    Knewton has developed an adaptive learning engine, capable of powering educational content that is individually tailored to the needs of each student. Currently, we use this technology to power our online GMAT and LSAT courses, which are taught live in online video classrooms.

    In the future, we hope this technology provides a supplement (not a replacement) to a live classroom setting. The system is designed to adapt to the learning style of each student (video, text, audio, interactive media, etc) in order to build a personalized learning curriculum. By breaking down concepts at a granular level, students can bypass content that they’ve already mastered and focus on areas that need improvement. This also helps teachers keep track of their students’ progress, and monitor at-risk students.

    The technology is not meant to supplant the classroom experience, on the contrary, when used in conjunction with classroom learning it allows teachers to spend less time disseminating facts, and more time imparting knowledge to their students. If a lesson can be taught online, and the concepts can be mastered through the system, then teachers can then allocate more time in class to critical thinking exercises, arts, experiments, and constructivist learning.

    This is what we believe the future of online learning will look like.

  2. Russ Goerend says:

    Preach on! We (teachers) are making ourselves replaceable by thinking we are the holders of all the facts, and thinking that’s what our kids need. We aren’t and they don’t.

    I have high hopes for our generation of educators, Jerrid. Many I have met seem self-aware and aware of the problems in education. That is not a generalization or a simplified indictment of previous generations. I am merely saying that I have met many teachers from this “next wave” who are focused on making education better. That is exciting.

    • jerridkruse says:

      We have to, it is literally sink or swim at this point in the ed world. My fear is that the easy fix from the outside (legislator) perspective is making everything online – I don’t blame them, they don’t know any better. But I worry when educators get bamboozled by the whiz-bang and flash of technology and lose touch with what school ought to be. Then we have two strikes against us.

  3. Good post – but I rail against the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, online or in the classroom. The creation of collaborative learning environments may be appropriate for some grade levels – but when students are preparing for college in high school perhaps a more lecture-fact-delivery format IS in the best interest of the students. And for rural schools where there are no specialists to teach specific populations of students on-line learning is a critically missing component in the public school arsenal. I think it should be used more often – not less.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks for comments. However, I obviously disagree. 1) I am not promoting a “one size fits all” approach, rather a “use what we know about learning” approach. 2) Just because college professors know nothing of teaching doesn’t mean we ought to “prepare” our students for poor pedagogy. If we teach in a manner that results in real learning (not just memorization) the students will be better prepared for the college classroom. If we teach them how to learn (not just take notes) they will be prepared for ANY learning situation. 3) your argument for rural (I live in Iowa and teach in Nebraska) is well taken. When there is no other option, online could be of use, my argument does not tackle that situation.

    • Bunsell says:

      As a college professor, I agree fully with Jerridkruse. There is no good reason to use a pedagogical approach that is dominated by lecture and information transmission. This approach is not effective in K-12 or college.

    • I disagree – the lecture format is still used with great success in Universities and colleges – and, last I checked, was also the preferred method of information delivery outside of the classroom in the “real world.” Some particular student profiles manage quite well with online learning: home-schooled children and high ability kids spring to mind. Traditional schools using the “lay it down/pick it up” format are abundant outside of the public school system – and quite successful. Perhaps online learning is not for every kid – nor for every discipline – but there are many students for whom it would be an improvement over a convoluted curriculum that has been modified to meet the needs of all learners in a mixed ability classroom. Insisting that all children thrive in that environment is silly – they don’t. Perhaps the role of teachers someday will be to modify the online learning environment and keep learners engaged even though the primary information delivery system is found on a computer. For example, monitoring math progression through a SuccessMaker type program where the teacher received detailed reports, can speak to specific learning needs for unique learners, spend more time with those who struggle and offer gateway programs for students who need advance coursework – would seem to me to be an ideal situation. I don’t think educators can claim to bring technology into the classroom without making use of these valuable tools. And I certainly don’t think it is anything to be afraid of.

    • Russ Goerend says:

      How do you define “great success”? The lecture format was so unbearable for me, I nearly dropped out of college to pursue actual learning. After realizing it was a hoop I had to jump through, I pushed through. There are many different learning styles, unfortunately for professors there is rarely more than one teaching style: lecture. Preparing students to be life-long learners and preparing them for mainstream colleges and universities are unfortunately concepts that are distantly related.

      Just because something is the preferred method of information dissemination does not mean it is the best method. Delivery and reception are two different animals.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Your points you are making are exactly why the issues I am raising are so important. Most of us are so blinded by technology that we do not realize (or are not willing to admit) what we leave behind. I am not afraid of technology. My students use twitter, blogs, message boards, youtube etc in class – but I am THERE WITH THEM. Looking them in the eye, helping them improve in more ways than just “picking up facts”. Do you really think a board meeting runs using “drop the info/pick it up” model? You are believing a lie. The best meetings I have been a part of (in ed, business, science, etc) are when people are sitting around a table bouncing ideas off each other, critically analyzing new ideas and brainstorming – not when one person is just “dropping” facts on everyone else.

      And yes, very bright students will “jump through the hoops” of online school very well, because they are damn good at playing the game of school – eat the bold words and vomit them on the test the next day (never think about it again). I’m sorry, but if we are designing school for the top 5% of our students, I don’t want any part of it.

      I completely agree that our current school system is messed up. But I refuse to lose hope. And I certainly won’t settle for second rate (online) schooling just because we have a problem in front of us. Taking the easy way out creates more problems than it solves. I’m just trying to articulate what some of those problems might be.

  4. Bunsell says:

    I don’t agree with the underlying assumption you make in this post. The benefit of online teaching is primarily efficiency — it provides flexibility for students and removes the “distance” barrier. You state:

    “However, if teachers are actively pushing student thinking, forcing them to explain, questioning their decisions, providing real world situations and scaffolding student learning, then the online version cannot replace teachers.”

    Effective online instructors are more than information disseminators. A good online instructor should do exactly what you say face-to-face teachers should do – actively pushing student thinking, forcing them to explain, questioning their decisions, providing real-world situations, and scaffolding student learning. Good online instructors also actively work to build relationships and a collaborative learning community.

    It would be a shame if face-to-face teaching disappeared. If it does, it won’t be because of a lack of quality, it will be driven by efficiency factors.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Learning is not linear or efficient. And my second paragraph is my real fear, that the economic factors and efficiency thinking will make it so online “teachers” are working with so many students, pushing them, questioning them becomes impossible.

    • Bunsell says:

      I agee with you on that point. However, this is also happening in face-to-face classes. It is getting more difficult to find class sizes less than 30 in Wisconsin high schools – and upper 30s, low 40s not unheard of in some US urban schools.

      I have actually seen the opposite occur in the few higher ed institutions that I teach for. Administrators have quickly learned that quality online courses are instructionally intense. I have had no problems capping graduate courses at 15-20 or receiving extra compensation (for me or a TA) in classes over 20 students. I was also able to cap an undergraduate course at 25 – it would easily have been around 40 if face-to-face. There really isn’t a cost savings in higher ed for online instruction (at least at traditional brick and mortar schools). The driver really is student access, convenience and student demand / competition.

  5. Aaron Eyler says:

    Before I begin: I am not adverse to online education, but I am against the evolving trend and thought process of suggesting that an online high school diploma could ever replace a traditional degree EXCEPT in extenuating circumstances.
    I can think of only one logical reason for having students participate in online education in a K-12 setting. That is (as stated above) when there is a need for a course of which there is no specialist in the building. The very idea that people believe an online education could replace the social stimulus that students receive in a brick-and-mortar school is completely assanine never mind when we begin to discuss the academic perspective. Unless I am mistaken, the original purpose of online degree seeking was for working professionals or individuals that wanted to obtain an education but could not find the time or resources to do it. It was never meant to replace a traditional K-12 diploma. We have now taken that idea and become dumb. If a student takes a (meaning one) online course in their high school career then I can understand that, but I worry that if intelligent people do not start speaking up soon then that type of practice will be deemed acceptable by mass population simply because of the amount of money it could, potentially, save.

    • Bunsell says:

      It is naive to think that online teaching would be confined to working professionals. It provides a level of flexibility and access that is generally not possible in face-to-face settings. Also, your claim that a “brick and mortar” experience is necessary for socialization ignores the many students that are homeschooled and not socialized in traditional school settings. Homeschooled children are often very well prepared for social and academic success.

      It should also be noted that I am an advocate for public schools…in real buildings with face-to-face classes. However, I do realize that many students are not successful in these settings.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Bunsell, the flexibility and access of “brick and mortar” is only limited by the people involved….we need to re-evaluate how teachers teach, not what medium they use. The push for online education is a symptom of a much larger problem.

    • Bunsell says:

      I fully agree that we need to re-evaluate how (and what) teachers teach. I just don’t see online education as a symptom. Early on, it may cause problems as administrators push it for efficiency and cost saving, but that will evolve IF quality matters.

      We need to focus on pedagogy that supports critical thinking, creativity, and content mastery in both face-to-face and online environments.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Unfortunately, at many institutions quality of teaching doesn’t matter, $ does. it is sad.

  6. A says:

    Your arguement seems to be based on opinion more than fact, and your opinion isn’t even that reliable considering you have no experience with online school.

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