The Trouble with Online Education

The one-night-stand of higher education.

Posted Jul 08, 2019

Several years ago I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction workshop, and the instructor prompted us to write a hate letter. While fellow classmates talked back to molesting stepfathers, harassing bosses, and cheating spouses, I found myself talking back to the system of higher education. This is part of what I wrote:

     Teaching is about connecting. It’s about community, love, the mind, heart and body, the voice and spirit. Online teaching contains none of this.

     Now you want us filmed “teaching” in front of a green screen; in this recording studio, there are no students, there’s no exchange of ideas, and there’s certainly no love. 

     Rather than just adjunct professors, of which there are already a sickening amount, why not hire adjunct broadcasters? Except you can’t pay them jack and not give them health insurance, then stuff them into shared offices next to the bathroom or mailroom with too many people and not enough desks and phones, and have them teach too many students on schedules they have no control over, with zero job security. Keep pimping out education: Professors can keep turning tricks. The porn makers—I mean media team—can film these canned lectures that are no better than the contrived plots of the plumber knocking on the door at 2 pm and finding the bored, lonely housewife. Except this time, the impoverished customers are students logging on at 3 am when they finish shifts at local hospitals or restaurants, banking on degree completion to advance them in their jobs and support their families. For that prized piece of paper at the end, they masturbate to the illusory promise of a sort of higher education. But like prostitutes and their customers, all they get is loneliness.

Glenn Carstens-Peters/ Unsplash
Source: Glenn Carstens-Peters/ Unsplash

Online education is about as satisfying as a one-night stand, and many elements of it resemble academic prostitution.  

According to sociologist George Ritzer, "McDonaldization" happens when the principles of the fast-food industry — efficiency, quantification, control, predictability, convenience, and speed — come to dominate more sectors of our lives. Online education is the epitome of McDonaldization: it is cheap, easy, and fast. It is also canned, formulaic, and alienating. 

My 84-year old mother — a former badass educator who was able to get a troubled kid who did not know how to spell his street name to write poetry — asked me, “So when does your online class meet?” She cannot wrap her head around the asynchronicity; I cannot either. I explain to her what I refer to as the “Hey, out there!” herding-cats phenomenon of online classes. 

When students post on discussion boards at 3 pm and no one responds until 3 am, or when people post at 11:55 pm when responses are due at 11:59 pm, this is the equivalent of students rushing into face-to-face classrooms blurting out something at 11:55 am for a class ending at noon. Discussion boards are electronic graffiti.

Students are much less tech savvy than we might expect in terms of readiness for online classes. Rather than bolster students’ sense of their “intimacy with machines,” as social psychologist Sherry Turkle calls it, we need to offer more face-to-face spaces to help them sharpen their communication skills, character, and leadership

Decades of teaching have shown me the transformative capacity of a great class dynamic. Those memorable and life-altering classroom experiences were hard-won; trust and intimacy took time to build. Students have stayed in touch with me because of what happened in those powerfully connecting moments. 

I have had only a handful of online students with whom a rapport formed in spite of never meeting in person during the term. These students were non-traditional-age returning learners, extremely motivated to get the most out of the experience, and they have been the strongest performing students in the online environment. However, in face-to-face classes I have had deep connections with the lowest-performing students, the average students, and the exemplary students. Because online classes lack multidimensionality, strategies for extending ourselves to struggling students are constrained by the environment's limitations. The tricks up my sleeve that disarm students and melt tension simply don’t work in a flat online environment. Recently in an online class, a student indicated that she was having trouble understanding the reading; helping students read better is hard enough but doing it online borders on the impossible.

Students not doing well in online classes do not submit work, neglect discussion boards, refuse to seek help, or resort to making poor decisions like plagiarizing, hiring someone else to do their work, and lashing out in emails or on professor-rating websites. They are least likely to assume responsibility and instead blame the technology, the content, the discipline, me, and the online format; they are also the most likely to disappear.

Online education defies the importance of building community. The over-privatization of education evident in online delivery severely undercuts what could potentially shape and transform a new citizenry. Despite the best intentions of discussion-board interfaces, students are isolated from me, each other, and the process of generating community. If an online class is very large, the discussion boards are more like a zoo. If an online class is very small, discussion is simply less interesting online and students are deprived of the intimacy that might accompany the same discussion in person. A former student, now a friend, sent me a fantastic meme about the limitations of online discussions, in which a person says “I like bread” and another one chimes in, “Yeah, I like bread, too.” The discussion boards can be about that stimulating. They are really less dialogue-driven and more like some people posting mini papers while others share more vacuous posts. 

A few years ago, I was eating at a local restaurant, and the owner introduced me to my server whom I discovered was my online student. But I did not know her, just her name on a roster. For reasons like these, I make it a practice to not offer or write recommendation letters for online students. These are not students I know in any real sense unless we get to know each other when the class is over or the student also enrolls in face-to-face classes with me. 

When students typically tell me that the class is good but would be better face-to-face, it's because they intuit that they are being shortchanged since artful, embodied pedagogy and sustained mentoring is compromised. The heart of teaching — the connectedness — is extinguished. I’m cut off from the very approaches and strategies that I know work best. I am not teaching with all of me, just some of me. Online teaching is amputated pedagogy. The bulk of my time is spent in information transfer mode and dealing with student e-mails about technical problems, while the magic of pedagogy is lost.

Education need not be easy and convenient; we do not need instaclasses. We don’t need push-button education. Appealing to issues like ease, convenience, and money, universities draw upon tenets of McDonalization to market online programs claiming “Your well-deserved salary increase is attainable. The ability to better support your family is no longer out of reach … you can access your coursework from home or the office … or you can pick it up and take it with you to your son’s soccer game, your hair appointment, or the nearest Starbucks!”

Institutions want to insist that online programs carry the same weight, credibility, and legitimacy as brick-and-mortar programs. When so many students complain that the bulk of their online classes are neither challenging nor memorable, that they rely on these as a way to quickly collect credits with give-me grades, it is clear that students see through the charade. It is the administration creating demand for this rather than the students, who often prefer face-to-face environments especially for dealing with edgy, sensitive material. 

Online classes are not just targeted at people in remote areas juggling jobs and families; many students take these classes while in their late teens and early twenties, and even while living on campus, exacerbating the problem of students holed up in dorms with only their technology facing heightened depression and anxiety. There should be parameters around how much a department or program offers online so that students wanting a multidimensional residential and social campus experience are not just left with online class offerings for their major and/or minor. And there should be geographical stipulations and restrictions. 

This is a moral, social-justice issue. It is time we ask who benefits from online classes and who is most deprived. Relying on this modality to serve the most disenfranchised, underprepared, and vulnerable students is unethical, and yet that is what is happening. Reconciling these tender pieces will reveal a lot about how we attend to the sacredness of education.