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In defense of online education | It's more than "takeout" learning

Over the last few months I have grown disheartened listening to and reading the opinions of students, teachers, professors, parents, and administrators on the effectiveness of online learning. Many have gotten a brief taste of online education over the last four months, and suddenly everyone is an expert. Unfortunately, most of those groups have been left with a sour taste in their mouth and feel that online learning can never compare to the traditional classroom experience.

Photo credit: @TheButcherChef

Imagine that your favorite high-end steakhouse is told unexpectedly that they can no longer serve food in restaurant and that they need to pivot to takeout only. (You probably don’t need to imagine this scenario very hard given the current situation we are all in with COVID19.) So, what is the experience of the customers, servers, and chefs in these steakhouses? Is it as great as the high-end experience customers have come to expect? Most certainly not! Why? Because the experience you expect in a high-end steakhouse is built around the in-dining atmosphere: food plated like artwork, servers waiting on your every need, and steak served at exactly the right temperature. Takeout steak comes with none of these qualities. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a great steak at home; it just means you might need to rethink the process.

If you went into the online learning experience thinking that you were getting a high-end steak dinner just served at home, of course you will be disappointed. That is not how online learning works, just like it is not how high-end takeout food works. Restaurants across the country quickly realized that pivoting to takeout meant changing more than just where their customers ate. It meant all new processes for food preparation and thinking differently about what to serve and how to serve it. It required resources like new food containers or new positions of catering managers or curbside food runners. Sure, many restaurants could try the same menu and processes. But what they learned was that the food quality diminished because takeout food requires a whole new way of thinking about food service.


I realized that if I wanted to be an effective online instructor and truly wanted my students to engage with the curriculum, it would require a whole new way of thinking about learning for both myself and the students. This meant new course design and training.

--Bethany J. Adams, MA, SHRM-SCP


I have been teaching online for almost ten years. In 2011 when I was asked to put my first class online, I did what every restaurant in the country did when they were forced to pivot to takeout only; I served the same food, in the same packages, with the same processes, just online. I realized that if I wanted to be an effective online instructor and I truly wanted my students to engage with the curriculum, it would require a whole new way of thinking about learning for both myself and my students. This meant new course design and training.

Design Matters

Online education pedagogy has evolved, like any practice, in standards and methodology through the years. Today there are dozens of recognized certification standards for developing online courses. The Online Learning Consortium Scorecard or the Quality Matters Course Certification are two respected resources in this area. While every course, whether synchronous or asynchronous, will be designed differently based on the learning outcomes set for students, the standards (minimum course requirements, base-level community building and communication, and measuring outcomes) can be applied to any curriculum across any course of study. Just like you would not cook a steak to order, throw it in a paper bag, and expect a 5-star review, you cannot serve your course in the same way you did in-person. Every course I teach online today goes through through an extensive design process that takes more than just a faculty expert; it includes instructional designers, technology experts, and a review process to ensure the right mix of resources, instruction, and engagement for students.

Training Matters

When I taught my first online course in 2011, I had zero training in online learning. Again, I thought my understanding of the traditional classroom and my expertise in the subject matter qualified me to teach in any format. I was wrong. Today, I have taken multiple certification courses in online learning. I am a member of a distance learning association where I attend conferences and webinars on new technology and pedagogy each year. I still am not sure I consider myself an expert in online learning, but I certainly know more than I did ten years ago, and I am committed to improving every year.

In addition to instructor training, online learning requires training the students to learn differently. It is more than training on technology; it is a different approach to the classroom altogether. Online learning is not for every student, in the same way that not every student thrives in a traditional classroom. Learning online requires a different commitment and personal motivation to succeed. Students need to be aware of the differences in this method of learning, encouraged through the process, and equipped with resources. Otherwise, they will be expecting their steak medium rare and find the fajita wrap doesn’t quite hit the spot. But for the students who are informed of the change in process and trained on how to manage the experience, they will find that the steak wrap actually brings new flavor and satisfies their hunger.

Withhold Judgement

This post is not meant to suggest that online learning is better than an in-person classroom. I believe there are positives and negatives to both modes of learning. And I am in no way arguing that schools should only be online this Fall. This post is about defending the integrity of online education and busting the false narrative being perpetuated in the news and on social media lately that online learning lacks the substance that can only be found in the classroom. Online programs have come too far and worked too hard to bust this myth over the last decade or longer. There is a tremendous amount of research supporting the effectiveness of online learning. When Michelin Star chefs began offering their creations in a food truck, no one believed they could enjoy fine dining outside from a truck stand. But just as food truck chefs have worked hard to change the perception of how you can enjoy fine dining differently, online instructors have been fighting to defend the integrity of their online classroom experience and the quality of the education they provide to students.

I am hopeful that the schools and programs that move online this Fall will take more care in the design of courses and training of students and faculty. But given the haphazard way in which many of the decisions are being made currently by administrators and leadership across the country, I am not convinced that the Fall 2020 online experience will be much different than the Spring. For this reason, I am asking everyone to withhold judgement of online education. You wouldn’t judge your favorite steakhouse by the lukewarm steak they served as takeout in April, would you?


Bethany J. Adams, MA, SHRM-SCP is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD Program at Villanova University and host of HR Tea, a podcast featuring interviews with HR leaders & researchers. Learn more about Bethany here and connect with her on twitter @bethanyjadams.

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