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Online Courses - What is Lost, What is Gained and What about Something Called Rigor?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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"In fact, the experience of some professors at Butler University, where I teach, has been that student conversations online are more thoughtful and nuanced than they are in the traditional classroom.  Maybe this is because students working online have more time to think about what they want to say than they do in a classroom interaction; or perhaps timid students feel freer to write out their ideas than to voice them publicly."


The posting below looks at some of the pros and cons of online learning. It is by James Keating, English Department, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana and is in response to two earlier TP postings (see below).  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Online Courses - What is Lost, What is Gained and What about Something Called Rigor?

Recently a commentary, Blended learning as Transformational Learning, (October 13, 2014) TP Postings #1357 and #1358) thoughtfully asked why some professors are skeptical about and even resistant to online learning, especially when many have not personally taught classes online. It seems to me that considerable resistance to online learning comes from uneasiness about the rigor of the course work and a suspicion that too much is lost when a traditional class goes online. It is reasonable to be concerned.  But in the modern university environment, the point of online learning is not to replace the traditional classroom.  Rather, online course work should be just one approach to teaching; one in which courses that are most appropriately taught in a classroom are taught there and those that are better done online use that venue.  There could also be situations where a blended model is most appropriate. Consider the following:

1. What is lost when a class is taught online?

2. What is gained?

3. Are online offerings as rigorous as the same classes taught in the physical classroom?

First, Losses.  The most obvious loss in the online environment is that students and professors are physically and (usually) temporally disconnected. In the world of online teaching there is much talk about synchronous and asynchronous classrooms. The former is a class where instructor and students are together online simultaneously and can interact in "real time."  The latter is one where the instructor posts information (lectures, films, exercises, readings, and so forth) at one time and the student accesses the class and posts comments and interactions at different times. Regardless of the design associated with the online experience, the interpersonal relationship is inherently different when students and teachers are not actually together in the same place. After all, there is something personal about sitting face to face with a student, determining by conversation or body language, what the student does or does not understand. It is useful to stand in front of a classroom or sit in a seminar and talk, discuss, explore, read facial expression, sometimes argue and often laugh together. Even in the best online classroom this just isn't possible. 

However, this is similar to the situation any writer or journalist faces.  Writers cannot see or know reader reaction. But publishing survives, both in print and online, because editors and designers know how to anticipate problems and address them in the editorial and publication process. This is what has to be done in the development of online classes. Course designers must foster a solidly productive forum where students and teachers can vigorously interact. In fact, the experience of some professors at Butler University, where I teach, has been that student conversations online are more thoughtful and nuanced than they are in the traditional classroom.  Maybe this is because students working online have more time to think about what they want to say than they do in a classroom interaction; or perhaps timid students feel freer to write out their ideas than to voice them publicly. So, while there are losses associated with the online model-they need not amount to a total loss.

Second, gains.  There are many gains to be had in online education because of the opportunities available in the electronic setting. Well-built courses require students to develop both academic and technical competencies. The issue of technical competency is especially important because student deficiencies in that area have been noted for years.  One study by Educational Testing Services indicated that students entering colleges suffer from a lack of computer literacy, despite the fact that there is a widespread perception that modern students are extremely knowledgeable. An abstract of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, "The article reports on the preliminary findings released by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) that college students and high-school students preparing to enter college are sorely lacking in the skills needed to retrieve, analyze, and communicate information available online. A study by the nonprofit testing group looked at the scores of college students and high-school students on a new ETS test designed to measure their information literacy and computer savvy." (Foster, 2006)  A subsequent 2010 study showed there is a gap between what students think they are able to do with computer technology and what they can actually do in practice. (Guy, 2010)  This issue is far from resolved.  In my own classes, made up of bright and thoughtful  students, I always have to teach fundamental computer applications that they ought to already understand.  Most can work in Word and PowerPoint, at a very basic level, but are stumped in spreadsheet and data-base programs.  They must do better.  It will be important for students to be able to demonstrate high levels of computer competency in the post-university world, no matter what careers they enter.  If education is going to be relevant it will have to help them build the whole range of technical competencies they will need in life.

Online opportunities in education will probably be one of the best ways for students to make the case for computer competence. In a well-designed online program students will have the opportunity to do the kinds of tasks they will have to do in the work environment. Indeed, much of what business does today is already online-this is reality. "Online business education is a microcosm of current real-world business practices.  Think of the multitudes of jobs that require meetings..." via computer programs conducted entirely online. (Mc Killop, 2010) Technical competence should be seen as part of what it means to be academically prepared.

Think about it! Is there a college professor anywhere who isn't using a computer to post grades, send assignments, or distribute important information to students?  Moreover, academic, scientific, business and virtually all researchers almost exclusively study problems electronically and  gather, store, share  and analyze data or submit manuscripts, via the computer. Medical personnel routinely keep and share digital records.  Repair technicians on HVAC units carry computers. Even my plumber carries one!  Just last week the New York Times discussed this issue saying, "Computing is increasingly an ingredient in every field, from biology to business....It's not just a skill but a mindset." (Lohr, 2014, p. B 8) And what a mindset it is. Government, courts, schools, businesses of all sizes at the retail and wholesale levels use computers to advertise, gather and share information. Manufacturers order and track supplies and send finished products via web-based programs.  Businesses price goods and target consumers via complicated computer algorithms...think of the way airlines price their tickets!  We all know this.  There is no denying that students who have multiple relevant educational experiences are going to be valuable in the workplace.  Online classwork can be one of those experiences.

Third, rigor. There is a worry that online education is not as rigorous as that which happens in the classroom. When we hear people ask wither a particular online course is sufficiently rigorous, we should ask what they mean. Is it a question of hardness?  Actually, either kind of course might be more difficult than the other, depending upon the texts, professors, kinds of tests, research, projects, and activities a student has to complete. The real issue is value and hardness isn't a measure of value.

Rigor is what counts. Rigor is important in the traditional classroom and is equally significant online. Rigor is that which leads a student to the understanding, knowledge, applications, skills, and competencies that are required for academic success, regardless of whether the student is sitting in a classroom or before a computer screen. 

There is nothing wrong with online learning when it is done well. And of course, the same can be said about the physical classroom. If professors, students, administrators, or anyone wonder at the rigor of online education, it's because its advocates have not made the case for how it is useful and successful. They have not elevated well designed and taught courses as models for all to see. Those exemplars should guide our perception of online learning and also how we work to develop and improve it over time. We need to show how computer-based learning can help students learn and demonstrate content-mastery while working with technologies relevant to the future.  We must help students show how they can use what they learn in creative and productive ways, proving they truly understand academic material. That, finally, is what rigor really means.  

I know this isn't the final word on the question and that it doesn't address every possible concern. Nevertheless, I hope these comments offer some useful thoughts concerning online teaching. In the end, online instruction is just one way to do the business of education. It isn't the only way and it isn't the best in all cases. This is the conclusion I draw:  Online instruction should have a place among various appropriate approaches to college-level teaching. 


Foster, A. L. (2006, October 27). Students Fall Short on 'Information Literacy,' Educational Testing Service's Study Finds. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 36.

Guy, R. S.-J. (2010). An Examination of Students' Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Demonstrated Computer Skills. Issues in Informing Science and information Technology, pp. 285-295.

Lohr, S. (2014, November 17). Google to Quadruple Computer Science Prize Winnings to $1 Million. New York Times, p. B8.

McKillop, R. (2010, Sept). Teaching Business ONLINE. Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers, pp. 49-51.