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Gary Stager on High-Quality Online Education

How to make your online courses better than your traditional classes

The great scientist, Marvin Minsky, once said, "Imagine what it would be like if TV actually were good. It would be the end of everything we know." For the sake of this article I'd like to play with Minsky's words and say, "Imagine if online education were actually good. It would end schools as we know them."

I believe online learning holds great potential for education. My colleagues and I have been teaching online for nearly a decade at Pepperdine University where the learning experience for students has become richer, more flexible and more personal than traditional face-to-face classes.

Unfortunately, few higher-ed institutions and even fewer K-12 programs share Pepperdine's commitment to constructivism and social learning theory. Most online programs are based on constraints, such as: too few student to justify advanced courses; geographic distance; teacher shortages; mandates squeezing electives out of the school schedule or budget cuts. In such cases, online classes respond to a crisis and are the Internet equivalent of the correspondence course.

A client recently asked if they could "see one of my online classes." The request meant that they wanted to see the bunch 'o stuff I prepare and deliver to my students. Such an expectation is based on the widely held assumption that online courses are a form of "shovelware." If a person asked to "see one of my face-to-face classes," they would be looking to observe what the classroom participants do. This peculiar clash of perspectives is critical when considering the future of learning. Why is it that we think about practice when discussing traditional classes and content when we imagine online learning?

Schools considering offering online courses to their students should consider the following recommendations.

Online courses are not your opposition Fears of funding losses and arrogance lead some schools to adopt a monopolistic view of providing education for their community's children.

Why do we think about
practice when discussing
traditional classes and
content when we imagine
online learning?

Students enroll in online courses for many reasons Designing course offerings exclusively for type-A gifted advanced placement students fails to acknowledge the needs and desires of other students who could benefit from online courses.

Invite your teachers to teach online The fabulous courses offered by the Virtual High School are taught by teachers in participating schools.

Online advantages Too many less desirable aspects of traditional education are migrated online. Strict time constraints, discrete non-project-based assignments, limited teacher-student interaction and an over emphasis on grade-based assessment are understandable in brick-and-mortar schools.

Content is not king Learning is a consequence of experience. Online environments should offer greater opportunities for collaboration, inquiry, discussion and greater access to primary sources than the 45-minute class. The emphasis should be on process and inspiring students to participate with greater frequency and reflection than is typical in traditional classes.

Help students out Too many online courses assume wrongly that students know how to participate in a discussion, ask good questions, manage their time or offer constructive criticism to their peers. Teachers must model these practices and reach out to students in the earlier stages of developing these techniques--not earlier.

Use different communication tools Different teachers, tasks and learning styles lend themselves to a variety of synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Tools facilitating both forms of communication should be used.

The best teachers should teach online Enough said.

Expect a lot more out of your software The most popular commercial learning management systems leave much to be desired. They are often buggy, inflexible and designed to facilitate medieval forms of instruction. Students should not spend one hour on an assignment and 90 minutes trying to determine how the work should be turned in. The systems should be open enough to allow students and teachers to learn from each other. Discussion boards need to be able to withstand the demands of hundreds or thousands of postings. Opensource and shareware environments like Tapped-In and Moodle are worth consideration.

Web Resources

Virtual High School



Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.