In some ways, I get why some people are saying they hate online learning. Almost everyone was forced into it – even those that didn’t choose it originally. We live in a time where most people that enter school (or teach at school) are aware that there is an online option. There are a few cases where people want to take or teach online courses when there aren’t any options to do so for the most part. But for everyone else, if you wanted to learn or teach online, you probably were able to choose that. The millions that were forced to switch suddenly last year did so against their first preference, and I get how that frustrates many of them.

Let’s face it – we all know that what has been happening the past two years is often not fully implemented, funded, and institutionally-supported online learning. Most tried hard to make it work, but due to shortages in training, prep time, or funding/support, a lot of it fell short of the true potential of online learning.

Of course, this was also true about face to face learning before the pandemic – even dedicated teachers are held back because of systems that don’t give them enough time, or train them well enough, or give them the money and resources they need. We just act like this is the “Facts of Life” for on campus learning… you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…. a gold standard….?

Nope. Any institutional leader or edu-celebrity that proclaims that on-campus learning is inherently superior to online learning is being disingenuous. They know that reality doesn’t support their claims. They just hate online learning… but not for quality reasons.

The real reason? It’s all about the power and control. Leaders can’t control their students, faculty, and staff remotely like they can on campus. And that control not only brings them a power trip – it also brings in big $$$ for schools when they can manipulate students into spending more money on campus.

And that’s it really: the real reason you have leaders (institutional, thought, and otherwise) claiming that online learning is inferior, and that on campus learning is the “gold standard,” is because they lose power (and the money that comes with that power).

Now – if a student or faculty or even University president proclaims that they hate online learning in and of itself – I get it. We all have personal preferences – I love online learning, but I get why it isn’t for everyone.

But there is a difference between saying one personally doesn’t like it, and saying online learning is inferior, failed, snake oil, etc.

The difference, of course, is research. There really is research showing that there is no significant difference between various outcomes of online learning and on campus learning. Probably one of the best sources to look at for research is the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s “No Significant Different” database:

“This site is intended to function as an ever-growing repository of comparative media studies in education research. Both no significant differences (NSD) and significant differences (SD) studies are constantly being solicited for inclusion in the website. In addition to studies that document no significant difference (NSD), the website includes studies which do document significant differences (SD) in student outcomes based on the mode of education delivery.”

Current, the numbers in that database are categorized as:

  • 141 studies that show no significant difference
  • 51 studies that show “Significant Difference – Better Results with Technology” (online usually being said technology)
  • 2 studies that haven’t been indexed yet
  • 0 studies showing “Significant Difference – Better Results in the Classroom”
  • 0 entries showing mixed results

Maybe it is just my bias… but it seems that the results are starting to trend towards online maybe being… better?

Recently I was in a huge Twitter argument with a group of K-12 educational leaders from the UK that were demanding that I provide an article that proves that online learning could even work at all. They had already ignored two responses to these demands from a female colleague of mine – and still demanded that I provide a link of my own even though I had pointed them to those tweets and the DETA database already. So I just refused to give out any more links to people that weren’t going to look at them anyway – and got attacked in all kinds of horrible ways. But it seems like they were under the impression that I had website addresses to killer pro-online education studies memorized and I was just being a jerk in not spitting them out in a few seconds. Look – asking an online educator to provide one article proving that online learning is okay is like asking a Geologist to provide one study that proves that rocks exist within the Earth. A few might have something in mind, but most of us don’t spend a lot of time memorizing what we see as “proof of the obvious.” Others seemed to think that academics have all the time in the world to respond to tweet #54 demanding that one all-proving link. Look – no one owes you free labor. If you ask for something and they don’t give it, learn to respect people’s time enough to accept that maybe they are as busy as you. Especially if you were the one that came in swinging with the “online learning is a dying evil” rhetoric.

It’s all complicated. I will be the first person to tell you it comes down to personal preferences on whether you should do online learning or not, and for most people its not even an either/or. Different contexts call for different modalities for each person at any given moment. We just need to kill the dated and problematic “in-person learning is the gold standard” BS.

See also:

(Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

4 thoughts on “We Know Why You Hate Online Learning – and It Has Nothing to Do With Quality

  1. Good editorial. There is no doubt that online learning will continue to grow despite the currently established view by faculty. They have a vested interest in the old model and they do not want to give it up. Those who benefit from the status quo will defend the status quo as if their lives depend on it.

  2. What is the real reason, according to Matt Crosslin? “It’s all about the power and control. Leaders can’t control their students, faculty, and staff remotely like they can on campus.” Now it’s true people say online learning is inherently worse. But the research says otherwise: “one of the best sources to look at for research is the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s No Significant Different database.” I personally remember this debate playing out for years in the early 2000s before it was finally put to rest. The results of that work are unlikely to be overturned by recent experience.

  3. A great piece – thanks for sharing! Online learning done well by someone who understands what they are doing is just as great as on-campus learning done well by someone who understands what they are doing.

    The variable of the quality of teacher is something that is not often discussed in any of these! A teacher who hates online learning will provide a more miserable online experience to their students (no studies, but as someone managing university educators through the pandemic – teacher enthusiasm seems to be highest correlated with student satisfaction and student performance from our cohorts!)

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