Is Online Learning A Good or Bad Thing?

I know you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but is the steadily increasing popularity of on-line learning a good or bad thing?

Depends. If all one wants students to do is recall mostly factual information on mostly objective exams, online learning makes a lot more sense than everyone meeting at brick and mortar locations at the same time.

But if it’s important that students learn to think critically, analyze content, and show empathy for others or develop greater self-understanding, a social conscience and interpersonal skills, it’s problematic because those skills tend to require “thinking out loud” side-by-side, asking questions, debating case studies, listening, problem-solving, and in the end, constructing knowledge together.

Then again, it’s probably just a matter of time until on-line instructional software incorporates group video conferencing and other related features that will make all of those more interpersonal aims equally achievable on-line.

Until then I confess to getting more than a little queazy when applicants to the Masters teaching certificate program I coordinate inform me they attended on-line universities. “Is that going to be a problem?” Inner voice, “Hell yeah!” Apart from counseling and diplomacy, I can’t think of any more intensely interpersonal profession than teaching.

I want prospective teachers to be subject-matter experts—which means knowing the elementary curriculum AND eight year olds inside and out or 9th grade physical science AND adolescents. I also know that their success as teachers will hinge as much or more on their ability to get along with students’ families and their fellow teachers and administrators more than their undergraduate grades or teaching licensure test scores. When it comes to adults getting along with one another, every school is dysfunctional, just in different ways and in different degrees.

Isn’t most contemporary work similarly interpersonal? And shouldn’t education be about citizenship as much as it is employment? And doesn’t effective citizenship require well developed interpersonal skills?

Maybe the better, more specific question is what distinguishes good online programs from bad ones? My guess is the best online programs are hybrids that require students to combine their online learning with weekly or monthly face-to-face teaching and learning experiences on brick and mortar campuses.

4 thoughts on “Is Online Learning A Good or Bad Thing?

    • Yes, a caveat though. Face-to-face schooling isn’t a guarantee that students end up more humane. Some of the 20th Century’s greatest tyrants–Pol Pot, Hitler–were well read and well educated. And of course many of the Wall Streeters we have to thank for the 2008 financial crisis were face-to-face Ivy Leaguers.

  1. Good points. For some of the basic classes, I think the online learning could work and help some students if it would keep costs down, but when they get into the subjects of their chosen field, then there must be face to face interaction…P.S. Thanks for liking my post about the Dolomites.

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