Are online teachers lazy sellouts?

More than a few people who hear I’m teaching online think I’m a lazy sellout. No one says so directly, of course. Instead, they emit the same squealing “ohhhhh” I heard so often when I first got a super short haircut, a vaguely sympathetic noise meant to buy them time to formulate a more or less polite reply:

-“Really? Good for you! I teach x, so, of course, I can’t teach online, but great! Really.” Translation: Online ed may be fine for some lesser subjects, but not for very deep and important ones.

-“Oh? Do you just love being able to work in your pajamas whenever you feel like it?” No translation necessary.

-“Good for you. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Luddite….still clinging to the old chalk!” Translation: Traditional is better. It denotes taste and quality in educational methods as surely as in vinyl records or heavy stainless steel toasters.

-“Hmmm, Wow! Well, we certainly are getting a lot of pressure from the top to shift to online, aren’t we?” Translation: The only compelling reasons to teach online are the institutional sticks and carrots which you, apparently, were not strong or principled enough to resist.

Because I know that some online classes really are inferior, cheaply-made products that instructors get lured or duped into peddling, I don’t get too defensive when such left handed comments are directed at me.
Too often, online courses are hawked by institutions for the wrong reasons, offered by the wrong instructors, and foisted onto the wrong students. And while there are obviously quality control issues with face-to-face classes as well, online education is more susceptible. It is right and healthy, then, that professors remain guarded about the insidious intrusion and seductive opportunity of online ed.

But it is also almost certainly sensible and healthy for many institutions to responsibly develop online ed, with faculty leading the way, of course. Do we instructors who are critical of online education actually imagine a return to all face-to-face campuses? Of course, the online tail should not be wagging the academic dog. Online ed should be appreciated as a modality of education proper to be created primarily by, well, educators. But what if talented, experienced classroom instructors are unwilling to get first-hand online experience? How effectively can seasoned faculty guide our institutions if we are not, ourselves, hands on practitioners?

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When students began to routinely communicate with me by email, it seemed odd and even a little cheeky. I recall, too, being thrown off my game when they started to arrive in class with only electronic versions of the assigned readings. I didn’t adapt to these changes because I fell slowly in love with them, or even because I coolly learned to identify their advantages. I took to them the way I took to cilantro and new car styles. For better and worse, through some combination of repeated exposure and peer pressure, they gradually came to feel normal and necessary.

On a tv drama I watch set in the 1920s, a maid is horrified to learn that her new job requires her to use a telephone. The new technology intimidates her and, because she’s never really used it, it also strikes her as a silly luxury. So too with online ed, we are being pulled into a future that many of us did not ask for. And while it’s sensible for some instructors to avoid online classes altogether, and also critical that traditional education be properly nourished, none of us can avoid how online modalities are changing education as such. After all, even the lives of those who resisted the telephone to their dying day were ultimately transformed by the shiny new gadget, whether they liked it or not.

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