Online education: bias, hope and reality

A post on Inside Higher Education today discusses faculty’s continued reservations to teaching online.  The author, Robert Ubell, shares several studies that examine professors’ resistance to online education and how they view virtual learning environments as being inferior.  As the vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School for Engineering, Ubell is a proponent of online learning.  In his role, however, he also recognizes some challenges that faculty face when teaching online.  For instance, he explains how many professors have very little experience with online education and therefore have very little personal experience with how to teach well online.  Ubell writes “going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.” To him, teaching online isn’t just about navigating the technical aspects of learning management systems or attempting to “migrate the campus experience online.”  Instead, Ubell challenges educators to visualize online learning as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

The challenge is that many professors see face-to-face instruction as the gold standard and create a false dichotomy between physical classroom spaces and online ones.  The reality, however, is that we often compare our best face-to-face classroom experiences with our worst online ones.  Also, since many of us don’t have online experiences upon which to draw, we visualize a confusing, highly technical environment where students independently work through low level content in isolation from their classmates.  But these beliefs largely do not reflect reality.  Ubell cites a research study from the US Department of Education which found “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (Means, et al, 2009).  Despite this evidence, some educators like to pit online and face-to-face education against one another, as if they’re battling for dominance in some instructional arena.  Rather than focus on whether “physical nor virtual education will triumph,” Ubell writes, we must shift our attention to “the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning” in whatever learning environment students are enrolled.

So, what are the best pedagogical practices online? One of the things that is becoming abundantly clear is that online learning is more than just accessing content.  Many educators like to think that content is the currency of their courses.  Sure, students enroll in our classes to learn English, physics and mathematics.  More than content, student learning and success is dependent to a large degree on their ability to interact with their classmates and with their instructors.  That’s one of the critical shifts that educators need to make when teaching online.  Interaction is the currency of online learning.  In many ways, this statement is true in almost every learning environment. But interactions happen naturally in face-to-face classes. They don’t have to be intentionally designed. In our physical classes, we don’t have to plan for students to see each other or hear other.  By sharing the same physical space, the interactions occur without educators planning for it.

Online learning environments, however, require that educators plan for interaction.  To be successful, online educators have to build opportunities for students to interact with their peers.  This interaction has to be intentional and purposeful.  In past posts, I’ve written about the Community of Inquiry framework and the importance of building social presence in online classes.  By focusing on these aspects and increasing interaction and engagement in our virtual classes, online teachers can better rise to Ubell’s challenge of making “digital education transformative” for students.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.


2 thoughts on “Online education: bias, hope and reality

  1. Great post, Ollie. The only place I would quibble with you is to push back that interactions naturally occur in F2F class but must be engineering in the online environment. Although I agree that the opportunity is greater F2F, there is abundant evidence that we often resort to didactic instruction focusing on content transmission in F2F classes. One of the great things about teaching online is that we are forced to confront this challenge directly, and often the insights gained through this process ultimately impact F2F instruction as well. Cheers

  2. Pingback: Walking the Walk | The 8 Blog

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