When Harvard’s Business School has trouble figuring out how to branch off into online learning, you know the game’s still afoot. What bothers me, and what seems the underlying problem assumption that’s causing all the mavens of distance education profit to be all in a dither, is the quest for One Course to Rule Them All, especially in divergent fields where critical inquiry and scholarly interest provide many pathways within the same discipline to excellence and great results in achieving learning outcomes. And this doesn’t even account for the plurality of academic backgrounds and visions faculty members bring to the table of course development and classroom deployment.
For decades the field of rhetoric and composition (“Writing Studies”) has focused on pedagogical issues as inherent to its basic research agenda, and there is still a heady divergence of approaches, pedagogical methods and ongoing refinements, with no lack of disagreements; nonetheless there has been development and strands of consensus in the field, especially, as I understand it, on teaching the rhetoricity of writing and communication. In fact, reading Elizabeth Wardle’s recent review essay in this June’s issue of College Composition and Communication, one sees her worry about ongoing, mostly at this point technological and digital disruptions within the scholarly field of rhetoric and composition: “’Will we keep our teaching rhetorical?’ The answer will deeply impact the future of our field—and whether we remain a field that has at its core a coherent, recognizable subject of study” (CCC 65:4/June 2014. 664).
So one has to ask, if whole academic fields themselves rightly and properly struggle with internal disruption and innovation, how “excellent” and smart is it to put all of a discipline’s eggs in one basket of a (cannibalizing) course, no matter who is teaching it or how many threads–as Breau points out in his Academe report on Harvard Business School’s online education dilemma–of “engagement, community and student support, robust outcomes and assessment of student learning, etc.,” such a dream online course contains? I think we and our “customers”–a deflationary term if there ever was one in the field of education–will be better off acknowledging the real, legitimate differences in how to teach and what to teach within given academic fields. Foreshortening those differences in the name of some juicy money-making monolith of a course wouldn’t have as much to do with learning and academic quality as it would pretend to do.
A slightly modified version of this comment is posted at the Academe Blog.