I was recently professionally attacked for a column I had wrote in the St Augustine Record. Here is my response to this professional attack:
A rebuttal to my rebuttal: open arms to scholarly dialog and adversity, and a dim look at censorship
A Scholar and a Friend
Introduction: Scholarly dialog is a concept, a tradition, and a basis for the academy and its very existence. One might venture to say that scholarly dialog is the single most important aspect of the academy: a home to engender and nurture ideas, a safe-haven for sound theories, a dwelling for the methodological and empirical to marry to test these theories, and ultimately, expand human knowledge. Our scholarly dialog facilitates the process. Should we begin to censor the foundation upon which our walls are built, our walls will surely collapse. The academy welcomes adversity, but with its open arms, it expects the critique and critical dialog in a manner that is supportive to its tradition. Censorship is not supported in this tradition. A scholar does not advocate censorship.
Position: I, thus, submit a disconcerting question to the academy. This question is rooted in a long history of human existence, learning, and development. In the past century, the question has been spearheaded by some of the greatest minds: Skinner, Thorndike, and Anderson to name a few. The question I submit: is there a synergistic content and method interaction? By content, I refer to domain of knowledge in a field of endeavor, such as, broadly mathematics, history, or science. By method, I refer to the approach of inquiry, teaching, and learning used by a discipline. If one is to agree that there is a synergistic effect between content and method, than one must accept that a discipline will have unique needs. One size does not fit all. To move from the abstract to more concrete, one must then consider the context of a third dimension: technology. Technology is used to support. In context, technology must be built to support the method. If such a synergistic effect exists between content and method, than it is more than conceivable that a specific content and method interaction will not always be supported by a given technology. That is my position. It is not that one form is inferior to another, but rather the loose coupling between the technology, method, and content.
Rebuttal: Rather than engage in a philosophical debate, which I, a member of the academy also welcome, I will make focus on the context of the so-called “negative generalizations” and “incorrect assertions” I supposedly suggested in the article. Aside from the fact that the critical response to my prose narrowly focused on those elements that one could deem as negative, I would also like to point out that many positive aspects were also brought to light. These comments were ignored in the critical response of my prose. A fair balance to both perspectives is necessary. For critical dialog to ensue, as pointed out by Porter, we must be specific in our critical dialog. The comment “These statements are generalizations at best and in some instances simply not true at SJRCC” is not specific to the points that were made.
To be more specific, I shall provide you citations and the theories and empirical evidence collected by those other scholar in the academy.
a. Distance learning students do not receive timely feedback.
This was misquoted from my prose.
I said that a student may find it difficult to ascertain the information. I did not say that distance learning students do not receive timely feedback; but rather, I said that it can be more difficult for a student to seek feedback since it is based on the use of a technology that does not always support its method and content. There is undoubtedly a time delay in question-to-response in a distance learning course using asynchronous technology. That is why we call it asynchronous. If there wasn’t, why would timely feedback be a best practice for distance learning instructors (Sherry, 1996)?
b. Instructors of face-to-face courses are better able to identify student confusion in online courses.
This is also a well-documented problem in distance learning research. The theory of transactional distance proposed by Michael Moore, probably the most well-respected distance learning researcher and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Distance Education states that “interaction” is the exchange of information, ideas, opinions between and among students and learners usually occurring through the use of technology to facilitate learning (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Technology has been developed, such as online surveys, to help teachers probe for this information, but it, again, is based on the content and the ability of the instructor to identify the problem. We are in the fourth generation of distance learning technologies, but many of us are forced to use technologies from the previous generations (Sherron & Boettcher, 1997). Problems can be more simply identified when a student is present because the medium of communication supports this activity. Shannon’s work on information theory also applies to this problem.
c. Distance learning course require students to complete “an immense amount of additional” reading in comparison to face-to-face courses.
First off, this statement was taken completely out of context. I was stating that students would have much more reading to do because 1) course procedures and instructions are generally in written form; and 2) posts to discussion boards are in written form. Assuming a course is not a sham, it would be expected that a student will have to read pretty much everything that would normally occur in a classroom environment. To make this point again, the theory of transactional distance once again comes into play. An online course may have a high degree of interaction, as previously defined; in such case the course has a low degree of structure. In such a case, discussion boards, email posts, etc. are still the primary means of technology used to facilitate
communication in a distance learning course – this is all in written-form. In contrast, if a course has a high degree of structure, and thus, low interaction, the procedures, policies, instructions would be additional reading. Would the student have to read all this information if they were in a face-to-face course? Of course, it again, depends on content and method. This may not always apply to courses that are heavily supplemented with multimedia technologies, but the preponderance of courses out there use these technologies heavily.
d. There is a significant student learning curve for utilizing the online course delivery system.
I did not refer to the learning curve as “significant”. I did, however, point out that there is a learning curve associated with the technologies in an online course. This learning curve is a well-documented barrier to distance learning (Bartolic-Zlomislic and Bates, 1999). That is why the original conception of distance learning departments on traditional brick-and-mortar campuses was to support students and faculty in this process – not dictate content. Some students are more technically inclined than others. Regardless, there is a learning curve associated with the delivery method: chat rooms, email, discussion boards, etc. Students need to understand how these tools work before then can use them. As Branford (1999) pointed, initial learning must occur before the transfer of learning can occur. On the promising side, these skills and knowledge have been shown to transfer between courses.
e. Research concerning student performance in distance learning is wishy-washy.
This was also incorrectly cited from the prose. I said that “research in distance learning” is wishy-washy – not “research concerning student performance in distance learning is wishy-washy”. I was specifically speaking of the no significant difference phenomena, which states that there is “no significant difference” on student performance between distance and face-to-face courses (NSP, 2006). This statement is actually in favor of distance learning. Of course, distance learning research on student performance is also wishy-washy. This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of many scholars in the field of distance learning and the US department of education. Systematic studies in distance learning often lack internal validity in the name of ecological validity. Most of these studies are quasi-experimental at best, and lack sufficient physical, statistical, and selective control. Many researchers that used grades to measure success or performance do not include students who drop out, and drop out rates tend to be significantly higher in distance classes (Carr, 2000; Garrison, 1987; Tucker, 2000; Woodley and Parlett, 1983; Zajkowski, 1997)
f. Student retention is lower in distance learning courses than in face-to-face courses.
This is also a nation-wide fact. However, I want to point out that I was not specifically speaking about SJRCC’s retention rates, nor did I make reference to, specifically, SJRCC’s retention rates because that information has not been made
available to me. I was careful to state “on average” for a reason. My stating this fact is not to say that distance learning retention rates are not improving as technology and faculty development improves in lockstep. Many single studies, meta-analyses, and national statistics speak to the “on average” lower retention rates in distance learning courses. Drop out rates tend to be significantly higher in distance classes (Carr, 2000; Garrison, 1987; Tucker, 2000; Woodley and Parlett, 1983; Zajkowski, 1997). This is common knowledge in educational research.
g. Students new to college should take a face-to-face course before taking an online course.
I cannot provide you evidence in support of this, but this is what I believe. Many other individuals, at SJRCC, also share this conviction. A student just entering college from high school or an individual coming back to school after raising a family needs to understand what they are getting into. Taking a course on campus first will help them understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Taking classes at a distance pose different challenges for students who are used to taking on-campus classes in terms of studying, time management and autonomy (Moore, 1998). If they are new to college, I figure we should probably let them get used to that first.
h. Distance learning students do not develop “long-lasting” relationships with their peers and instructors as compared to the experience they would have in a face-to-face class.
Again, another misquote from the prose. I did not say that distance learning students “do not” have long-lasting relationships with their peers and instructors. I said that “while professors work hard to encourage student-to-student interaction in distance courses, this effort does not always transfer to long-term friendships among student.” And that “a telephone, discussion board, email, or chat room conversation does not replace the valuable face-to-face interaction that you have with your professors”. Look at some the greatest success stories in the past 10-years that included the relationships developed during college: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, David Filo and Jerry Yang, or the relationships developed between Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and her students. Look at all the money universities fork in because of long-lasting relationships between students and professors. Should one honestly think these relationships would happen as swiftly via discussion board posts, chat rooms and emails?
i. The convenience of distance learning “come at a cost to [students] educational experience”
This is an easy one – student activity fees. Why do we charge students money if there is not a benefit to being on campus and interacting with peers and professors?
Closing: I hope that my rebuttal is received as openness to scholarly dialog and adversity of ideas in the halls of the academy. If one scholar claims another scholar is inaccurate in their claims, it should be done so in a collegial manner. Evidence, sound reason, specificity and clarity of ideas and recognition of the traditions of the academy should be the basis for critical dialog. A true scholar engages in the conversation.
Bartolic-Zlomislic, S., and Bates, A. (1999, January 1). Investing in On-line Learning: Potential Benefits and Limitations. Canadian Journal of Communication, 24(3).
Keegan, D. (1986). The Foundations of Distance Education. London: CroomHelm.
Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. Chronical of Higher Education, 46(22), A39 – A41.
Moore, M. G. (1988). Introduction. In C.C. Gibson (Ed.) Distance Learners in Higher Education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes (p. 65-76). Madison, WI.: Atwood.
No Significant Phenomena, Retrieved on October 10, 2006 from: http://www.nosignificantdifference.org/.
Sheets, M. (1992, Spring). Characteristics of Adult Education Students and Factors Which Determine Course Completion: A Review, New Horizons in Adult Education, 6(1). Sherron, G. T.,
Boettcher, J. V. (1997). Distance Learning: The Shift to Interactivity, Cause Professional Paper Series, 17, 1-38.
Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in Distance Learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1 (4), 337-365.
Tucker, S. Y. (2000). Assessing the Effectiveness of Distance Education Versus Traditional On-Campus Education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in April 2000 at New Orleans, Louisiana.
Woodley, A. and Parlett, M. (1983). Student drop-out. Teaching at a Distance 24, 2 – 23. Zajkowski, M. E.(1997). Price and persistence in distance education. Open Learning 12(1), 12 – 23.