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The Weaknesses and Weaknesses of Online Education According to Frank Donoghue

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Over the summer, Frank Donoghue, a professor of English at Ohio State University, and regular contributor to “Innovations: Insights and commentary on higher education” in the Chronicle, wrote a series of blog posts which examined the strengths and weaknesses of online learning. A self-acknowledged skeptic regarding online education, Donoghue began his series by discussing the inevitability of online learning and its growth throughout higher education. He then turned his attention to examining the strengths and weaknesses of online education referencing a page from the Illinois Online Network that outlined the strengths of the popular medium. While it seemed from the initial post that Donoghue was going to take a rebuttal from Franklin University president David Decker seriously and consider the possibility that there is potential benefit in online education, he ultimately did not. Instead, his second post, “The Strengths of Online Learning?” merely critiques three of the strengths outlined in the Illinois Online website:

  • Synergy
  • High quality dialog
  • Creative teaching

In this post, I will respond to Donohue’s critique of these strengths of online learning, using the lens of an experienced instructional designer with a Ph.D. in the design of instructional systems.

Synergy
Donoghue’s Take – "The notion that “synergy” is easier in an online classroom as opposed to an in-person classroom strikes me as hollow. What’s to prevent a dynamic interaction between students and instructors in an in-person setting? I just don’t see why this feature is specifically a strength of online classrooms." (Donoghue, 2011)

Donoghue states that there is no real difference between the synergy possible in F2F classes and online. It is not a distinct feature or advantage of the online classroom, as there is nothing to prevent dynamic interactions in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Marquis’ Rebuttal – Donoghue speaks the truth – there is nothing to prevent dynamic interactions in the in-person classroom; however, there is also nothing to require it. In a F2F class, there is a real possibility of anonymity on the part of the student. They are required at a minimum to show up (most of the time), be quiet, and take tests/quizzes or submit papers. But there is no possibility of anonymity in a good online class. Every student must participate. There are required emails, discussion board postings, and regular participation checks that simply do not exist in the traditional classroom.  Online learning is built on a learner-centered, self-directed model which does not allow for students to attend and just slide by. This is one of the most often cited strengths of the online classroom and a significant portion of that is the synergy and sharing made necessary by the individualized nature of the medium. During a recent educational technology course that I taught, the class was treated to a teleconference with one of the instructors from Columbia Virtual Academy who described for us how much more involved he is with his CVA students and their families than he ever was as a classroom high school teacher (CVA is a virtual option for the Washington public schools). The CVA is an exemplary model of the way that online education can work, and of the strong relationships and synergy that can develop between those participating in its classes.

Quality Dialog
Donoghue’s Take – "Illinois Online seems bent on making careful reflection the be-all and end-all of student interaction, the notion that students need lots of time to reflect in private before responding [sic] their classmates comments (on discussion boards)." (Donoghue, 2011)

He calls this notion “bogus,” stating that an ability to think on one’s feet is a far more valuable skill than thoughtful reflection. Donoghue characterizes the dialog in online classes as only asynchronous in nature, which only requires careful reflection and written responses.

Marquis’ Rebuttal – There is comparable value in the ability to think on your feet and to thoughtfully reflect and respond. However, I would like to rebut Donoghue’s critique on two fronts. The first is that the art of asynchronous reflection and communication may well prove to be a more valuable 21st century communication skill than thinking on your feet. Digitally mediated communication is becoming the norm for much interaction, and an ability to effectively convey your meaning in writing, text messages, or tweets could prove to be one of the essential skills for conducting business in a wired world. I know that this is certainly the case in my current position as an education writer for this site.

Secondly, while the Illinois Online Network site that Donoghue refers to does only specifically reference asynchronous communication, that is not the only vehicle for virtual classroom dialogue. With an increasing use of audio/video conferencing tools, screen casting, interactive whiteboards, and many other synchronous tools, the virtual classroom has the potential to be as dialogue-rich as the F2F classroom.

Creative Teaching
Donoghue’s Take – "An utter joke. The Online Network is simply ignoring the material circumstances of online teaching. The bare fact is that most online instructors are adjuncts. They teach primarily at community colleges and for-profit institutions where the teaching loads are extremely heavy. The vast amount of anecdotal and empirical evidence I have at my disposal suggests that adjuncts are horribly overworked and, therefore, unlikely to be doing any "creative teaching." (Donoghue, 2011)

Donoghue calls the proposition that online teaching is more creative “an utter joke,” stating that most online instructors are adjuncts teaching prohibitively heavy course loads. According to Donoghue, this overburdening of adjuncts means that they are barely able to keep up with their teaching and thus have no time to be creative.

Marquis’ Rebuttal – While I agree wholeheartedly with Donoghue’s criticism of higher education’s abuse of the adjunct system, I think it is unfair to a) Assume that all adjuncts are teaching five classes every term, and b) think that, just because someone is an adjunct at a community college or for-profit, they are not capable of teaching creatively for whatever reason. One fault in this logic is that many adjuncts are not even responsible for their own course design, instead relying on highly trained, professional instructional designers to develop the most engaging and creative courses possible, so long as the creativity doesn’t impede student learning.

A second flaw in this response on the part of Donoghue is the failure to acknowledge that online teaching is, by its very existence online, a creative endeavor. A course cannot simply be put online, without some thoughtful and creative consideration of how to best employ the delivery medium. In the best case, the use of the Internet to deliver course content opens up nearly unlimited avenues for creativity as instructors (even adjuncts) are constantly exploring newly available technologies to not only teach more creatively, but to lessen their own burden (ProfHacker, March 18, 2010). Making tasks easier and more efficient is, in fact, what all technological advancements do. So, it may be in an overworked adjunct’s best interests to think of creative ways to teach that will be better for their students and them.

Summary
This rebuttal is in no way intended to argue that there are no problems with online education; there certainly are, as Donoghue deftly points out in his post, “Another Look at the Weaknesses of Online Learning.” If virtual learning is the way of the future, as most believe it is, then constructive criticism of its weaknesses and a thoughtful consideration of the ways in which the overall concept can be improved is a more useful tact to take when presenting a critical examination of the medium. The technologies behind online education are continually advancing and new models for facilitation are constantly emerging. While Donoghue’s series of posts in the Chronicle presents an interesting snapshot of where online learning is right now, it contributes very little to the discussion regarding where it should be going in the near future.

 

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