Is it possible to teach an online history course that isn’t evil?

25 02 2011

At some point in the recent past, our last department chairman (now retired) and our last provost (now also retired) signed our department up for a program that allows active duty military personnel to get history degrees from our school entirely through distance education. The program has the potential to make a lot of money for both the department and the university, and I’m certain that they simply decided that there was no way they were going to leave that money on the table.

While this program is being presented as something that the department can choose to participate in, it is abundantly clear to me now that it is going to go on whether tenure track faculty decide to participate in it or not. All of us in the department, me included, have serious qualms about how any online or distance ed history course would stack up on an educational level against anything offered on campus, but I’m starting to think that it might be better if we went into this with our eyes open to get a share of the money and to mitigate the difference between online and on campus classes.

It’s clear though that if I go through this, I need a serious attitude adjustment. That’s where I could use some help from you, dear readers. Is it possible to teach an online history course that isn’t inferior to a face-to-face offering? If so, what do you have to do to make it that way? Also, while I’m at it, if I’m going to sell my soul to the online Devil (so to speak), what should my price be?

All advice, by comments or via e-mail, would be very much appreciated.

Update: If you’d like to see a good summary of the always evil position, UD has one of the best I’ve ever seen up today. It’s going to be hard to make me feel better about what’s going to be done around here after reading that, but I’d still like to try.



3 responses

26 02 2011

I have to confess, I’m a bit bemused by the question. Distance (and recently online) learning in Britain has a quality reputation going back to at least the founding of the Open University several decades ago. British universities don’t simply regard distance learning as a cheap option but a genuine alternative for delivering higher education to people, especially mature students, who can’t attend universities in the traditional way. The Open University has very high levels of student satisfaction and is widely regarded as one of the better universities in the country. An OU degree (yes, including a history degree) is in no way inferior to any other.

I’ve never been involved in distance learning so don’t have any particular advice for you (except to look up the OU and see waht they do), but there’s no necessary connection between distance/online education and poor quality. As long as it isn’t simply done for maximum profit – that’s what is the evil, not the method of teaching.

26 02 2011
Jonathan Rees


I think your bemusement comes mostly from my use of the word evil, which was mostly a good excuse for me to post that devil tarot card again. Let me try rephrasing the question:

Is an online class inferior to a face-to-face class by definition?

Even if it is, what can be done to close that gap to the minimum distance possible? Open University might be good, but is it as good as the offering on most traditional campuses?

1 03 2011

Online is not inferior by definition. That it usually is in practice likely has to do with administrators’ expectations that one can teach many more students cheaply online through mass-production: a faulty assumption if you assume that education requires attention and feedback from the faculty to the student.

I sometimes teach an online grad seminar, max enrollment of 15, with quality readings and carefully crafted assignments that require reading, discussion, writing, and thinking. I spend an enormous amount of time responding to student writing in this course. I think they are learning a lot.

I’d recommend that anyone thinking of teaching this way take at least one well-taught online course about how to teach online before just diving in and doing it. U. of Wisconsin offers some courses of this kind. It’s eye-opening and not an enormous investment.

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