Online Learning Shouldn’t Be ‘Less Than’

My 22-year-old is a student at Portland State University. He’s a bright, committed student studying anthropology and linguistics. For as long as I’ve been teaching — more than half his life — he has watched, listened to and most recently participated in discussions, rants and revelations about critical and digital pedagogies. He’s keenly aware of the limitations and affordances, for example, of the learning management system, and he’s invested in the social justice side of education, in “education as the practice of freedom,” as bell hooks would say (Teaching to Transgress). So it was with some distress on his part that he reported to me that one of the spring 2018 classes he’d registered for had been moved entirely online.

But it wasn’t the move itself that bothered him. “They made it an online class because the teacher will be too busy to teach it.”

Too busy to teach. So put the class online. Because … that’s easier? The course will run itself? Students don’t need teachers to be present online?

What are the assumptions behind this rationale? At the very least, putting this course online because “the teacher will be too busy to teach it” betrays a belief in an inherent, marked difference between learning and teaching that happens in the classroom and learning and teaching that happens online.

This marked difference — bias? — has been present since online learning first came into play in higher education, with many institutions refusing to accept online classes for transfer credit in those early years.

Learning done online — from automated corporate training to classes offered in an LMS to MOOCs — has always been viewed with some skepticism, viewed as something “less than.” And for most of its evolution, online learning has warranted this criticism. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy made possible by antiquated pedagogies and educational technologies that limit teaching to button mashing, knowledge consumption and test taking.

But we’re not still in those early years. It’s not pragmatic today to think that classroom and online college experiences can remain separate — in terms of quality, but especially in terms of ideology.

We have long framed online learning as inclined toward rudiments, toward direct instruction, toward autonomy, whereas campus learning is framed as intimate, nuanced, communal. In part, this is because online students historically have been “nontraditional” — students with jobs, families and other obligations, and students in rural or otherwise distant locations.

For instance, when I taught at the Colorado Community Colleges Online, many students were military personnel stationed abroad, people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, or folks dialing in from their local library because their town had limited cable internet availability, much less a college or university.

But this framing also rises from our embrace of a technological solution to a pedagogical problem. Or a technological ethos applied to a pedagogical problem. When we have asked, “How do we teach online?” the answer has been one focused on efficiency, content mastery and delivery of instruction.

What this means is that courses, disciplines and pedagogies that fit that framework are those that have not only proliferated online, but that have set the standard. In program after program, online classes are restricted to courses that rely entirely on content delivery and mastery, whereas the most interesting classes are kept on campus. We’re far more likely to find “Introduction to X” than “Topics in X” courses offered online.

But if online learning is more rudimentary, less nuanced, personal, complex than campus learning, that betrays an implicit assumption that so are online students. But “nontraditional” doesn’t mean unacademic. Online students are students like on-campus students. Just as curious, just as hopeful, just as genius, just as troubled, just as excited and unsure. Have we built, do we sustain, an online learning that embraces these students? Do our online courses actually accommodate them?

For example, as students on campus progress through their degree programs, they are invited to take smaller, more specialized classes, to enter into mentoring relationships with teachers and even given the opportunity to teach. Online, not so much. And when we omit seminar classes or dialectical teaching and learning from online course offerings, we create an inequity. When we think of online learning as instrumental and not intrinsically valuable, we create an inequity.

Which leads me to ask, do online courses accommodate students at all? Or do they cater primarily to an ideology of efficiency, retention, “student success” and numbers that institutions can report? Are online classes provided for learners, or are they intended to extend a university’s reach, its revenue-generating enterprise? Certainly if the latter, then the quality of online courses needs only meet that standard that students will tolerate for the sake of the credential, the carrot on the stick.

In the almost 20 years I’ve been working in digital learning and instructional design, I have seen overwhelmingly that students who prefer to learn online do so because it’s “easier,” “more convenient,” while at the same time agreeing that online learning feels like ticking boxes for a grade (this at both the undergraduate and graduate level). Teachers I’ve spoken with have said that online courses can “run themselves,” and that students get higher grades in online courses because it’s easier to game the system when no one’s watching.

Boiling education down to the delivery of content and grades is not what most students or teachers came to education for.

Increasingly, the importance of who students are is coming into greater relief. While accusations of “coddling” have been leveraged against this generation of students, identity is more and more at the center of education. Students bring a deeply nuanced understanding of identity — race, sexuality, gender and the norms, microaggressions and markedness that surround those — into the classroom, into discussions, into the work they will do as young scholars.

The mix of this, the “messiness” that it brings to learning (or, as my colleague Amy Collier might say, the “under-determinedness” and “not-yetness”), is not compensated for in an online learning that seeks to deposit what the instructor knows into students’ minds through a series of flipped switches and clicked buttons. We cannot forget that it is the student’s mind, not the teacher’s wisdom and authority — and certainly not the institution’s competitive aspirations — that needs attention.

But similarly, teaching must remain a work of self-actualization (à la bell hooks). When we take our teaching online, do we feel as interested, as invested, as challenged, as engaged, as when we teach on campus? Shouldn’t we? Isn’t it our right as teachers to be able to bring our love of our subject and field, our passion for connecting with students, into a digital environment when it’s called for?

Have we created an online learning that has self-actualization at its core? I’m not sure that Canvas or Blackboard have ever offered a self-actualization API. And we can literally look at the software to see what the intentions behind online learning are: “speed grading,” test proctoring, plagiarism detection, automation (e.g., personalization), student monitoring and surveillance. What is the goal of online learning? Inclusion and access? Or have we just advanced a version of Skinner’s teaching machine?

This isn’t simply a series of curmudgeonly questions — or it’s not meant to be. These are the kinds of questions we’re asking at University of Mary Washington in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. These are the questions inspiring conversations at Middlebury College’s DLINQ group and in Muhlenberg College’s Digital Learning group. And they are questions that fuel invention, innovation and creativity at Digital Pedagogy Lab. A whole host of educators have been asking these questions from the fringes for years — but these are not fringe questions any longer.

We must look straight at the online learning we’ve created, and that we sustain, and ask, is it education we are providing — education with all its texture and nuance and abruptness and creativity? Or is it something else? And if the current form of online learning, once we inspect it, doesn’t measure up as parallel in value to on-campus learning, we must take it upon ourselves to revise it, to refuse what is inequitable and imagine something different.