Blog / Thoughts on Online Education

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October 11, 2019
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I vividly remember the days of AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM. My screen-name, PurpleWalrus7801, was an attempt at middle-school cool. How clever, I thought, to combine words and numbers into some very non-obvious reference to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. The “away message” foreshadowed the status update as a means to self-promote how cool and interesting your offline life was, all in order to receive validation from your friends online. Then, of course, there was the flirting dimension. A harbinger of things to come by way of the text message, AIM provided the opportunity for provocative suggestions and impersonal attempts at intimacy, all of which came with the LOL insurance policy – any suggestion that pushed the boundary a little too far could always be recanted with, “Haha, JKJK.”

There was, and remains, an uneasy self-consciousness to it all. While perhaps blurry, the distinction between online and offline communication and behavior was, and remains, apparent to me and my peers. People around my age – people born roughly between 1985 and 1995 – have the unique distinction of being at least the very first wave of digital immigrants, or at most the very first wave of digital natives. We are the very earliest adapters of technology, but we still needed to adapt. We are just old enough to not have had technology embedded into our pre-memory psyches. Elementary school for us was still largely offline. As toddlers, tablets were not used to pacify us. We still distinguish between our online avatars and offline selves. We inflect a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, difference into our online presence.

True digital natives, it seems to me, lack this online-offline self-consciousness. As an eighth-grade teacher, one of the most interesting things I noted about my students was their seeming ability to shift online and offline without the slightest perceptible change in affect. My students talked to each other online and offline using the same language and syntax. They shared rumors the same way and flirted the same way and expressed vulnerability and support for one another in the same way.  All of this occurred without any grooming – just raw posts and expressions, stream of consciousness.

These observations initially led me to muse and mull over the degree to which Facebook was integrated into my students’ lives, and my own. For people my age, Facebook, like a benevolent leviathan, lured us in with benefits – the promise of connecting us to friends near and far in a hitherto impossible manner. Then, slowly but surely it entrenched itself, regardless of our will, into every facet of our lives: how we date, what we read, how we measure our own successes, and how we measure the success of others. With my students, there was no luring – real life and Facebook have always been inseparable, one in the same.

There is considerable debate over the implications of technology inundating a child’s mind. Questions abound regarding when children should be introduced to tablets and screens, how much time they should spend on them, and what the content should be. These are valuable questions and research should continue to unveil the answers. Equally interesting however, are the implications the profusion of information technology has and will have on education.

I never liked the idea of online education. Watching lectures online and writing blog posts struck me as impersonal, distracting, and cheap. I like things the old school way – a wise and caring human being, in the flesh, guiding my thinking through topics difficult to grasp. I believed online tools could likely augment in-person learning, but never replace it.

Assisting in research on online education has shifted my perspective. While I continue to believe that online education will never fully replace in-person learning, the degree to which online education can augment traditional learning is far more remarkable than I realized.

A stunning analysis of 151 opinion articles from a variety of respected sources about online education led by my colleague Bethany Weigele attempted to capture the general thrust of arguments for and against online learning. I can’t do justice to breadth and depth of what our team uncovered, but a few of the conclusions struck me as particularly significant, and paint quite an optimistic future for online education.

First, there is broad consensus that there are certain education niches that are quite well served by online platforms. In particular, professional credentials and degrees, certain STEM subjects, and adult learning in general, all seem to be successfully deliverable by online platforms.

Next, online education has an important democratizing effect, and thus, it has the potential to strengthen education’s most admirable quality as the great equalizer. Students in China, all across Africa, and women all across the globe, are now able to access higher education in numbers previously unimaginable.

The flexibility offered by online education is another important development. Full-time employees and students with families of their own are finding online platforms as a valuable, and sometimes the only, opportunity to attain an advanced degree.

There remain important reasons to be skeptical about online education. The quality of online degrees is widely variable. Widely variable as well is the validity of an online credential in the labor market. How universities will successfully integrate online components, and the impact this will have on professors, continues to be vexing. Finally, online education programs seem to still struggle to engage learners in truly interactive ways. But similarly to every new technology, continuous assessment, refinement, and iteration will slowly but surely increase quality and reduce cost, unleashing the power of higher education for millions of previously excluded people.

My colleague’s analysis did not cover how the generational differences in the use of technology might impact the online education debate. And there exist no comparative analysis of the achievement differences between digital natives and digital immigrants with regard to online education. My intuition and experience lead me to believe however, that as my students and their peers continue to advance in their education careers, the promise of online learning will continue to compound.

I may never fully embrace online learning for my own educational pursuits. The self-consciousness of my online avatar and offline self, and the belief that my online and offline educational experiences are necessarily different, will likely impede me from ever doing so. I doubt my students will have the same problem.


Blog / Thoughts On Online Education