Promise And Pitfalls In Online Ed

NEW YORK CITY – It seemed almost too easy. Catharine Stimpson and Ann Kirschner start from such fundamentally different perspective in their views about technology-enabled education that staging a symposium at which the two of them talk about their experiences taking online courses (or writing about such an event) seemed like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course Kirschner would be a booster, and Stimpson a naysayer. What enlightenment could possibly emerge?

The event late last month at New York University here (where Stimpson is University Professor and dean emerita of the graduate school of arts and science) followed the expected script in some ways. Stimpson, a Columbia- and Cambridge-trained feminist literary scholar who presided over the Modern Language Association and is a staunch defender of the humanities, probably surprised no one in the audience when she expressed her qualms that online learning, at least as embodied by tightly controlled courses like the creative writing class she took at the University of Phoenix, contribute to a trend in which “teaching is losing its dignity.”

And Kirschner, a City University of New York dean among whose claims to fame is that she was a key player in the initial wave of distance education through the aborted consortium Fathom a decade ago, did the expected when she characterized the trend of the moment, massive open online courses (or MOOCs), as a “breath of fresh air, a welcome sign that innovation is alive and well in higher education, and in some of our greatest institutions.”

But in their back-and-forth over such topics as the pros and cons of peer tutoring, the quality of the online courses they took, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of face-to-face vs. distance formats, the two women’s views were often separated by less than the few feet between them in the room where they spoke.

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