I Can Learn (but can you?)

Okay, so there I was minding my own business and checking my emails. You know how it is, its the end of July, and you’re mainly deleting rubbish. But one caught my eye. It was from a colleague, and widely circulated. “I’ve come across this article” he said “might there be some lessons in here about online education more generally that we need to debate and consider further?”
The article was by an American academic, Jennifer Morton and I clicked on the link to find out what lessons I might learn.
The article, a blog piece, compares the experience of students giving presentations ‘in-class’ to the future dominated by MOOCs. Whilst recognising that MOOCs appear to increase access to higher education Morton then claims that, “the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.”
This is because the skills conferred by a ‘middle class’ education including “social, emotional, and behavioral competencies” are lacking in the home lives of poorer students. These skills, it seems, can only be learned in physical classrooms as poorer students are able to learn from their better educated and more socially articulate peers. Thus, “our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds.”
My initial reaction to this was that it is wrong to assume that online learning and MOOCs should be regarded as the same thing. That the evidence that students can only learn these social skills in face to face settings is asserted rather than proved. I wrote back to the list that the initial email had been circulated to pointing this out and arguing that the author was so keen to disprove online tuition that they failed to see the inadequacies of face to face teaching which is held up as a gold standard to which online teaching can never hope to compare.
On re-reading the blog piece by Jennifer Morton, I would also say that it seems incredibly patronising to poorer students. The only value of education seems to be to drag them from the gutter into the respectable middle class. It is almost as if they are being judged solely on their inability to know which knife to use at the dinner table. I think I misunderstood the article because I had assumed it was about the value of face to face teaching against that offered by online alternatives. It is actually about how to create a middle class by taking small numbers of lower class students and applying peer pressure to improve their middle class credentials. I suspect that many middle class educators would agree with the sentiment expressed by Rex Harrison when he sang of a gender he could not understand in the film My Fair Lady ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, adapted to ‘why can’t those rough types be more like us.’
Whether or not the goal of expanding higher education is to make us all middle class, there remains the issue of whether online tuition serves the interests of students or is simply a pale reflection of classroom based provision. One of my colleagues in replying to my assertion that face to face is held up as a gold standard replied unequivocally that “excellent face to face teaching” was indeed a gold standard.
The key here is probably in the word “excellent”. What is excellent face to face teaching? And, what is it about online tuition that means it is destined to fail to reach these dizzying heights?
I have taught extensively in both face to face settings and online, and I have also attended others sessions in both. An excellent teaching session, in my view, is one that engages students, stimulates them and encourages them to return. I have certainly seen outstanding face to face sessions, but I have also seen truly inspirational online teaching. It is not the mode of delivery that is important but the enthusiasm, commitment and imagination of the tutor that makes the difference.
Whist I am certainly aware of innovation in face to face teaching I only have to glance at a website such as TeachThought to see that the majority of innovation is happening online. In other words, whilst developing our teaching skills is important regardless of mode of delivery, if we want to be excellent that can no longer be achieved by fixating nostalgically on a mythical past of “excellent” face to face teaching.