Why I think Online Education is the Future
Or why there is only little “rock star magic” in education.
No one knows what will happen in the future. If we did, we’d be able to “pick stocks” and get rich. But if I could make a prediction, I would bet on online education.
I tend to teach most of my courses online (though I teach live classes every semester as well).
Christopher Eisgruber, current President of Princeton University, is, it goes without saying, one of the most important academicians in the world. So I tread cautiously before taking him on.
In the video, he argues a certain dynamic exists in face-to-face teaching that cannot be replicated online. For instance, he makes the point about TED where he is giving the lecture raising ticket prices to see their live events featuring superstars like himself, while at the same time making those talks free to the public online. Please watch the whole video to understand him fully.
I’ll give you the perspective as a teacher who has taught many sections of both live and online classes: Teaching live is more stressful because you have to perform and be “on.” But it’s also, for me, something I enjoy more. The atmosphere is warmer and more dynamic and inspirational. So I agree with President Eisgruber in a sense.
But online is still destined to grow and supplant a great deal of what live teaching does.
And that’s because the goal of teaching isn’t to inspire with magic, but rather teach material to students so they pass, get the highest scores they can, go on to get their degrees and so on. So when I was first tasked with teaching online courses my administrators told me the goals of live and online courses were the same. Indeed, the course outlines, a generic term for what everyone who teaches the course at the college is expected to cover, are the same.
So when I construct online classes, I make sure everything that comes out of my mouth in a live lecture is put in the online course. If the students have questions about the material, my answers I type online are the same ones that I speak live in class.
But yes, online is drier, less inspirational, more impersonal, and more reading and writing intensive. So what are the benefits? If you take an online class at a college, price tends NOT to be a benefit, because students tend to be charged as much (and professors paid the same). But given this, students still take advantage of online education in increasing numbers.
The main benefit of online education is convenience in the form of flexibility. While the work expected of both professors and students is on par in both formats, being able to work asynchronously, often from home, or from wherever, helps tremendously. One of the best things about being a full time college professor, even one who has to teach 15 credit hours a semester (standard for community colleges) is the flexibility of scheduling work hours. For instance, where I work many professors (including me) don’t have to come in on Fridays. (Though I tell people I work 7 days a week, because I do work on all 7 days). Our union contract presently says we must be physically present at least 3 days a week.
Administration probably wants to change that so full time professors spend more time on campus. And I understand why. They and the rest of the full time working world have to be present at least 5 days a week. But the growth of online education will only increase the flexibility of scheduling for both professors and students. So I teach overloads, the term for college professor overtime, every semester; but I can still set my schedule such that I miss rush hour traffic both ways (get to work after, leave work before, or if teaching a night class, leave and/or come back to work after). That’s worth all the money in the world to me, hyperbolically speaking.
But what about the “magic” to which President Eisgruber alluded? There is a reason why above I termed it “rock star” magic. I will use rock concerts as an analogy. I have a passion for many different kinds of music, rock included. And while classical and jazz music tend to be virtuosic, rock tends not to be (even though some rock music is virtuousic).
Indeed, the way in which the genres are performed live illustrates the differences in technical approach. Classical music, and (to a lesser extent) jazz, tend to be performed in venues where, in the ideal, you can hear the music’s precise execution, the individual notes, the rhythm and harmony, etc. The acoustics of the concert halls matter.
Rock, on the other hand, tends to be played in places where they crank it up loud. And if the performers are successful enough, really loud in really big venues. Now, some rock performers, because 1. they aren’t expected to be virtuosic technical executioners; and 2. of perhaps drug and alcohol use and abuse suck live; that’s unfortunate. The goal for rock performers is still to hit the right notes and the right time.
But nonetheless, even the best rock star performances in large venues with the music cranked at ear drum damaging levels will produce a muddier sound, not as crisp and clear as what is heard on a record/CD/digitally downloaded “album.” And some of the great live performances can be, likewise, digitally recorded and viewed for free (or charge) on places like YouTube too (indeed, those live performances may sound better on the recording than they do live, given the ability to control the noise/volume/distortion effect).
I remember seeing rock virtuosos Dream Theater and the Dixie Dregs around the turn of the millennium in Philadelphia. Earlier that day I saw Steve Morse and Dave LaRue (guitarist and bassist, respectively, for the Dixie Dregs) give a clinic at a music store (with sequenced drums).
I compared the two performances and thought how, from the perspective of “music appreciation,” I got more out of the clinic performance. Why? At the music store, 1. I was closer to the artists, and 2. I could hear the notes more clearly. But the live concert was fun. Why? I partied. I ran into an old friend from Berklee College of Music and I had a few cocktails.
I still party, but in a much more low key manner. I tend not to go to big concerts anymore because I don’t like the inconvenience of driving, parking, in addition to the high cost of the ticket. If I am driving I have to be careful about how much I drink. I prefer the smaller venues with good acoustics where you sit down and can hear the notes very clearly.
But what was the appeal of big rock shows? Rock star magic, for lack of a better term. The ambiance. The partying. Energy? Yes. The specialness of seeing those performers who you really dig in a live setting where you are in the same venue as they are? Obviously.
And that’s the problem with the analogy to education. As much as we wish otherwise, we academicians or at least the vast majority of us, are not like rock stars. There is little “rock star magic” (RSM). I don’t say “no RSM” because we have with a very small percentage of students a like “magical” connection that can’t be as easily replicated in an online setting. But the problem is their small numbers. I cherish the connections I made with those students whose lives I touched. They really had a passion for the ideas I taught; they genuinely enjoyed the live lectures, savored the moment, had their lives transformed.
Yes it’s true that for such students, they probably wouldn’t get NEARLY as much personal satisfaction from an online class as a live one. But, alas, the vast majority of students are there to get their grade, either passing or the highest one they can. Most students, unfortunately, tend to like it when they get let out early. There is an old adage that education is the one thing you want less of what you pay for.
In this sense online education is a path of lesser resistance. And that’s why I think it will grow and supplant more of live face to face education, especially as Moore’s Law progresses.