Saturday, June 23, 2018

Online Learning is Just Learning

Vallance and Wilson-Keates have taken exception to Clow, and Kolomitro's characterization of online education. But I think they have all missed the point: online education is not very much different to campus based, especially now most university courses make use of the Internet for at least part of the delivery. It is a little like arguing an electric car is better than internal combustion, while the industry is moving to hybrids, which combine the two forms of power. There are very few students studying purely online or on-campus, most mix both formats. The educational techniques needed for each are not as different as these authors suggest.

Clow, and Kolomitro give online learning faint praise, describing its benefits "in theory": inclusivity,  reach, pace and flexibility.  Then then present the case against, with limited student-student-faculty-institution interaction, isolation and lack of community. They describe a "one-size-fits-all" online education model. Clow, and Kolomitro present a picture of an in-person classroom with collaboration, engagement.

Strangely, Vallance & Wilson-Keates start their rebuttal of the attack on online learning by disagreeing with the one thing Clow, and Kolomitro said in its favor: that it provides for those otherwise excluded from higher education. Vallance & Wilson-Keates go further to specifically claim that Athabasca University (AU) students don't enroll because they were excluded from conventional institutions. This is a odd claim to make, given that AU says on its web page "we are Canada's Open University" (an open university being one without the entry requirements of other institutions_. I know at least one AU student who felt excluded from other universities: me. It is a little odd that after making me feel so welcome, AU would want to deny this.

Vallance & Wilson-Keates provide no evidence for the claim that "The online educational context in the Canadian landscape is no longer regarded as an inferior experience...". Having read research on online education as part of my MEd in Distance Education, I consider it is very much still the case that online education is seen as a second best option, in Canada, and throughout the world. The research shows that online graduates are every bit as good as campus based ones and the students are happy with the experience, but online is still seen as second best.

Vallance & Wilson-Keates claim that interaction in an online course is up to the instructor. However, this denies that the nature of the possible interaction is limited by the technology. As an online student I did feel isolation at times. However, I also felt isolation as an on-campus student, and much more isolation when a part-time night-course student.

We need to stop this "how many angels could dance on the head of a pin" debate over online versus classroom education. The question is not if online is better than face-to-face, but what mix of the two provides the most cost effective, quality education. The students have already voted with their feet and are leaving conventional lecture theaters for on-line learning. But they will still come to class, provided they are given quality, affordable, convenient experience. I know this because I studied this topic, as a graduate student, in a classroom in Canberra, and online at Athabasca, while teaching in a classroom in Canberra and online  (also I designed one of AU's courses).


Vallance, Jeff & Wilson-Keates, Barbara.  (, 18 June). Online education in Canada provides learners with a flexible, inclusive and quality educational experience. Athabasca University. URL

Clow, Erin & Kolomitro, Klodiana. (2018, 2 May). Online learning isn’t as inclusive as you may think. University Affairs. URL

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