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Commentary: A case for online education

Tim Roberts
Rich Egger
Tim Roberts

Online higher education has been the target for much criticism, some justified, some not. I have taught an asynchronous, online course - meaning, I did not interact live with students very often - and I have been a student in such a course.

I can imagine few learning experiences worse than relying on a single, really big textbook and video-recorded lectures that reiterate the book’s content, taking multiple-choice quizzes, and emailing a professor a question late Friday with a prayer that they check their inbox before Monday’s assignment deadline.


Online courses requiring such drab or intimidating techniques, it’s no surprise, have lower completion rates than face-to-face classes. And they do little to help students’ thinking skills or build a community of learning.

But online education can be more robust than it was even a few years ago. This is true for a couple of reasons. One, teaching in the liberal arts, my background, has moved away from content delivery and towards intellectual inquiry. Partly to emphasize the value of a liberal arts major in a world of STEM, teachers in my field of history are keen to teach how historians read, write, and think: those skills are relevant to a student’s career - meaning, partly, helping make them money - whatever technological environment they find themselves in. In a history class today, brick-and-mortar or online, students are taught to think of the past as connected to the present, and as a problem to be solved, not a grand narrative to be consumed. And students map their own learning experiences, through self-assessment. For example, they describe what “historical thinking” means to them at the beginning of the semester, and revisit their definition later.

Second, and perhaps this is a silver lining to what happened to education during the pandemic, we are paying more attention to how people learn in an online environment. Students, like my own teenagers, who suffered through the great odyssey of “stay-at-home-and-keep-your-camera-on,” are still recovering from their experience of suddenly learning alone. And we have become acutely aware that loitering in social media’s echo chambers can aggravate risks of intellectual and social solitude.

Several aspects of a thoughtful, remote-learning course can counter the appearance of isolation that online education may present. The guarantee that an online course will be taught by a PhD in the topic, as in my department, is valuable (in fact, about three-fourths of online courses at Western are taught by PhD holders, much higher than the national average). Just as I keep hours in my Morgan Hall office, online office hours and timely responses to all student queries are crucial. If more than one student asks for the same directions, it means the whole class needs a quick video from me with a public service announcement. Students like seeing their teachers.

Likewise, threaded discussion forums, requiring students to comment on a common question or digital artifact that classmates respond to, creates class dialogue at least as inclusive as in a face-to-face setting. And peer feedback on students’ work, possible through live streaming as well as written feedback, encourages students to consider the diverse audiences who will encounter their ideas.

Actually, it’s the opportunity for greater student diversity and access that is the strongest argument for online education. Notwithstanding everything I’ve just said, I think in-person college education is generally better than online for students enrolling in college soon after high school. Regular, required, on-time class attendance and participation can help new students build soft skills, important for professional development, and civic awareness, a sense of how citizens have responsibilities, along with rights.

But a liberal democracy - that’s liberal with a little L - depends on its members appreciating how people different from themselves have equal claims to be heard. To be sure, in online courses, as in today’s political climate, the virtue of diverse perspectives is not something that students grasp intuitively; a shrewd instructor needs to embed it in learning activities. Done well, online education provides diversity and access that a brick-and-mortar classroom may not; it can serve a distinct clientele.

In an online setting I have taught students who identified as working moms and dads, professionals wishing to change careers, high school students, high school teachers, veterans, and military service personnel serving around the world. For these “non-traditional” college students - the term is ironic given their growing numbers - the online classroom is a unique space to engage a multiplicity of perspectives, broadening how a history class wrestles with the pressing problems that the past presents.

And if I can enable someone who cannot make it to Macomb to learn to think like an historian, our society is better off.

Tim Roberts is a historian at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.