Are you an online education charlatan?

10 05 2011

While I still don’t have a good bumper sticker for the argument that I used to misclassify, a commentator from Down Under reminded me that I tend to be a little harsh about online education:

I’d buy your bumper sticker in the long form, but I have to speak up for online education charlatans, of whom I’m one. Down here in Australia we’re also being told that the solution to the bubble is to let it float up to the cloud, and believe me this is even more alarming to those of us who really are trying to teach all sorts of things meaningfully, quietly and quite well online.

Certainly, not everyone involved with online education is a charlatan. I know some people who are doing really interesting things with distance learning, especially in history. The question of whether or not you’re a charlatan revolves around motives. Consider this current story from the Huffington Post:

The New York Times Knowledge Network and New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University are teaming up to offer online courses in subjects ranging from homeland security studies to global health care.

The courses will be open to all students and they may be taken individually or used toward an academic certificate.

Why doesn’t the New York Times offer its digital services simply to the existing students on the FDU campus? The answer is easy: They need the money that online students can provide. Serving the students attending Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey simply isn’t a big enough market for a company that desperate.

The people I know in online education who are not charlatans tell me that creating a good online education course takes much more work than teaching it face-to-face. You can’t just upload your lectures and call it good. Especially in history, you need to rethink the entire way that you present facts and foster discussion and analysis.

I’d like to think the NYT has the best interests of Fairleigh Dickinson’s students at heart, but somehow I doubt it. Being a slave to the bottom line is a pretty good indicator that you’re an online education charlatan.



8 responses

10 05 2011
Middle Seaman

We have no influence over trends, administration and even deans. All we can do is improve the quality of teaching, thereby fighting the war on our preferred field.

Face-to-face is the worst way to educate students (the majority). Only interactive, discussion-like and prepared form of studying really works. Even when you teach analytically difficult topics, in face-to-face mode, fails to convey depth and details to the students.

Currently, analytical courses online seem impossible, but non-analytical face-to-face teaching doesn’t work well even now.

If we could make everything interactive and discussion-like, online will not be an option. For years I tried to move the department towards seminar-type teaching on all levels. The answer always is dropping the topic.

10 05 2011
Jonathan Rees


Perhaps it comes from our different disciplines, but I couldn’t disagree more about your evaluation of face-to-face instruction. Discussion in an effort to bring out analytical points is just about the only way I know to get at the subtleties of history. Even if I could type fast enough to get a good analytical discussion going, you lose a lot without the ability to challenge students (and they you) in the middle of a thought.

Facts, facts and more facts is just plain dull – for me and for them.

11 05 2011
Middle Seaman

I may have failed to explain myself well enough. My experience with material that has no major intellectual obstacles is best describe by a former teacher who is a Nobel laureate. He asked us about our preferred style: “do you want vomit or problem solving?” Frontal vomit can be replaced by a textbook or an online course. Problem solving, i.e. digging in deeply, is best done face-to-face.

I attended classes in history, sociology, economics and linguistics. (I am a old pain.) I didn’t notice different styles of teaching for different topics. (May be in some art classes.)

11 05 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I’m late to this conversation, and perhaps should now change my name to Online Charlatan, which has quite a stylish ring, but I did want to send a small, polite cheer to your correspondent who feels that there are some weaknesses in face-to-face teaching. To me, these are increasing, just as the problems arising from online privateering are getting a bit worse. It’s just that face-to-face becomes our big taken for granted value, when the reality is that for many students its a practice of presenteeism. They’re with us, but they’re not necessarily listening, nor necessarily well prepared for the kind of socratic enquiry you’re advocating and that’s partly because they’re supposed to be in three other places at the same time, and also because their classes are overenrolled and we don’t know who they are.

So I’m not sure one method or another represents a magic bullet, because the problem isn’t mode of delivery, it’s institutional attitude, to which we are all more or less captive at the moment.

I read your earlier postings on online courses with interest.

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