In Defense of Online Education

I hope the readership of Civil War Emancipation will indulge me as I make a seriously off-topic post. This post is a response to an op-ed essay that appeared in the New York Times on July 19, 2012. This piece was written by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, entitled “The Trouble With Online Education.” As the title implies, Edmundson is critical of online higher education. My day job is online instructor with three different institutions of higher education (American Public University System, University of Phoenix, and Upper Iowa University), so I know a thing or two about teaching online. Not surprisingly, I found much to disagree with this op-ed. The New York Times generally doesn’t publish rebuttal op-eds, so please forgive me if I use this soap box to respond. I promise to return soon to the usual topic of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War. But I need to get my thoughts about this piece off my chest and into the market place of ideas. So please feel free to reshare this essay.


In Defense of Online Education

Online higher education, in its short life, has been the target for much criticism, some justified, some not. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the latest critic to take online education to task. In essence, Edmundson argues that online education is flawed because it is a “monologue,” when students would do better with the dialogue of the traditional classroom.

Like Edmundson, I once too was skeptical of online higher education. For over a decade, I taught on traditional college campuses. Eventually, I became a virtual professor teaching online for several institutions, including the for-profit behemoth, the University of Phoenix. My classes at brick and mortar institutions always had had an online component, so I was already familiar with the possibilities of online education. Since then it has become the heart of my professional world, and I have become intimate with its advantages and limitations.

Clearly, Mark Edmundson needs to spend more time in online classrooms. An online class is all about dialogue. In every online classroom, its heart and soul are the discussion forums, where the students converse about the course material with their instructor, and even more importantly, with each other. It is simply not possible to pass an online class without participating extensively and substantively in the class discussion. The courses are deliberately structured that way. An online classroom is all about students interacting and helping each other—in other words, practicing active learning.

Indeed, having spent considerable time in both traditional and online classrooms, I can attest that a lot more dialogue occurs in the latter than the former. A student at one of my online institutions, after reading Edmundson’s piece, wrote on a student club board on Facebook, “I remember so many of my undergraduate classes where the prof. would appear (in one case pipe in hand) right [at] the start of the hour, talk incessantly for ninety minutes and leave right at the end of his lecture. No questions, no interaction, nada!” Anyone familiar with the traditional college classroom knows that this student’s characterization is too often accurate. While the sort of intimate class dialogue and active learning that Mark Edmundson refers to exists there, it occurs with much less frequency than various forms of passive learning, such as lectures, especially at state universities with classrooms bursting at the seams with students packed by budget cuts into large enrollment classes.

So should we shut down traditional university campuses? Certainly not. Traditional and online institutions both serve distinct clientele. Traditional universities are best for students recently out of high school, who in my experience do better in a regular classroom, and benefit from the community and resources of a physical campus. Online learning caters mostly to adult learners, past traditional college age, who have decided belatedly to pursue a college degree, but because of work, family, and other obligations often do not have the time to take classes on a physical campus. These adults, having greater maturity and with real world experience, more often have developed the self-discipline necessary for success in an online learning environment that traditional college students tend to lack.

In fact, established universities should be called to task for their lethargy until now at meeting the needs of adult learners. While declining government support for higher education is partly responsible for this problem, so is the skeptical, dismissive attitude common from the dwindling tenure-track faculty at traditional institutions, who resist online education because they see it as a threat to their relative privilege within the academy. They and the institutions that employ them have left the field of online education by default largely to for-profit companies, who are arguably more innovative and willing to experiment in educational methods, but follow a profit-motive that is alas sometimes incompatible with the best interest of students.

Traditional faculty, like Mark Edmundson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia, should be praised for defending the value of the liberal arts college education, against arguably hasty and ill-considered ventures into online education and competency-based learning, prompted by trustees and administrators afraid of being left behind in a major developing field in higher education. Too many online ventures in higher education today are questionable, as this nascent field struggles to find the paradigm that long has defined traditional higher education in the United States. But Edmundson and tenure-track faculty like him should not be so casually dismissive of online instruction. Even with its faults, on the whole, it is bringing a quality educational experience to a group of students that long have been poorly served by traditional universities and it should do an even better job as its model is refined by further experience.

The truth is, like any education experience, the value of online education is determined largely by the quality of the effort the student puts into it. And for online classes, that quality is structured into the class through the considerable dialogue that is required. They are definitely not a monologue.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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7 Responses to In Defense of Online Education

  1. Mitch Kachun says:

    Interesting. But when you say it’s not possible to pass an online course without significant interaction, shouldn’t you specify that it’s not possible to pass *your* courses? I have not taught a fully online class, but isn’t it just as possible to teach it as the “pipe in hand” lecturer does–read these power points, view these videos, take notes on these lectures, take these quizzes, write these essays, etc. I think online ed has great possibilities, but, like in person ed, it can be done well or done poorly.

    • A good question, Mitch. In response, I teach at three online at three different schools. All of them require discussion boards with substantive interaction between faculty and students, often with quotas of the number of days students must make substantive posts, minimum number of posts, minimum word count, etc. The course credit for discussion varies from about 25 to 40 percent of the total class credit. There might be online program like you describe, but my impression is accreditors are cracking down on them. When one of the schools I worked for finished with its latest accreditation visit, the minimum number of discussions we had to do rose. I agree with you, online education can be done poorly or well, but the same can be said for traditional college classes as you are no doubt familiar with.

  2. You are absolutely right. Thanks for this response. And the other readers of this blog, who might not know much about online education or think it is not a good way to learn, think about how much you have learned just from this blog.

  3. Dr. P. Hardman says:

    Thank you. After twenty-five years in traditional university classroom settings, I was leery of online courses, too. But, I got over that when found most students responsive, willing to do the work, and asking questions that not only enhanced group learning, but often sent me scurrying to refresh my knowledge base or learn new things. I just wish online education could serve all who need such educational technology. Maybe one day it will. A fine article and an even better rebuttal.

  4. Lew Taylor says:

    Thank you for your wonderful response. I am a sixty-seven, disability retired Vietnam veteran that is now two classes away from a Bachelor’s degree in American History at American Military University.

    Had it not been for on-line courses I would not be finishing up a degree that was started in the early 1960s. I have found the coursework at AMU to be challenging, to say the least. As an example, one class that I finished not long ago required the following: one major posting each week (300 word minimum), four responses to fellow students (200-250 words per response), one book review, one short paper (3-5 pages), one research paper (10-12 pages), one mid-term exam, and one final exam. This was all done in eight weeks! I do not believe that very many B&M schools require that much work in their classes.

    There are many on-line schools that are nothing but diploma mills — the American Public University System is not one of them.

    Lew Taylor
    Cape Cod, Massachusetts

  5. Julian Meade says:


    Very well said. I teach in both traditional and online college environment.(including at one of the online universities where you teach) I was skeptical of the quality and depth of online education but have been surprised by the level of student knowledge and insight.

    J. Meade

  6. Edwin Thompson says:

    The article was meaningless. On-line education is here to stay, however, what form it will have in the future is still not clear. It’s possible that it will turn into an institution that will primarily supplement a tradition education, or become a complete on line school (as is being done), or morph into something we wouldn’t recognize today. But as communications system continue to improve, on-line education is definitely here to stay. The article said more about the Professor than the subject. When he “cringed” from a comment like “you must learn so much from your students”, you know he is not listening to his students. In his case, maybe on-line is better. We learn something from every experience.

    Sometimes I think the NYTimes publishes articles just to get responses. Yesterday, they posted an opinion by a Professor of Political Science titled “Is Algebra Necessary?”. Wow – It was so bad, it was humorous. Some of the comments posted were quite funny. I viewed this article in the same light as the on-line education article.

    PS – my daughters have told me that on-line courses are much harder. They don’t like them. They are a sample of two so statistically that is meaningless. Oh yeah – we don’t need no stinking statistics – or algebra – or American history.

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