Guest Post 1: Dr. Marco O’Brien on The Lesson of Icarus and Fast Food Learning

Educational institutions and education decision makers are expressing a growing concern about the parity and overall value of online courses and degrees. The National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology (NCSPP) members, argue that some of these online courses and degrees should not be accepted.

Some days ago I attended the faculty meeting at a prestigious graduate school. The admissions committee expressed concern over how to evaluate online courses presented on students’ applications. I argued that rather than reject online courses the admissions committee should ask the applicant for evidence that the course/s meet the educational criteria required. The support for accepting the course is more difficult when the course reflects clinical or experiential work.

There is no doubt that online courses are increasing in number. Also, there is a real need being addressed by these online courses. A guide when addressing the differences between online and on-campus courses is to understand that in education, good learning involves the dynamic interaction between the teacher and students. This interaction will have a formative impact on the mind, character, and physical ability of the student. As a coordinator and a catalyst, the teacher is key when designing a course in the absence of physical contact with students. Some alternative processes and overall strategies which enhance the dynamic interaction of the teacher and student are requisite.

Good teaching makes use of the knowledge and experience of the teacher, the interest of the student, and of the content being learned. Online courses have the challenge of distance. The value of education in a university that offers quality, online courses can be compared to a food restaurant. The university’s gourmet online courses make full use of the teaching technologies by increasing the dynamic interaction between the teacher and the student. Learning takes place and the student learns content along with the ability to think differently. Online courses which limit interactions between teacher and students to reading the textbook before completing assignments and quizzes, become cookbook teaching with fast food learning; a student may gain content knowledge with little or no incidental learning.

At the same time, if online instruction relies solely on the growing technological tools without increasing regard for the quality of the teaching, a student’s incidental learning may be out of reach. When I think about online courses, and in particular the teaching side, I am reminded of Icarus’s experience. If the teacher’s giddiness with emerging technology like Blackboard and Google gadgets, gets out of hand, that teacher may forget the importance of the dynamic interaction between teacher and student, and fly—too close to the sun.

Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son. Before they took off from the island, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea. Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax.

Marco O’Brien, Ph.D. is a faculty member at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and the Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology (WSPP). He has taught psychology courses, is in private practice, and does research in psychology, education and cultural diversity.  He has taught online courses for approximately ten years and has completed some research comparing factual and incidental learning differences between on-line and on-campus students (http://oncampus.matc.edu/obrienm/Technology/documents/essays_articles/Study_synopsys_narrative.pdf) that may be of interest.

One Response

  1. I can’t disagree with anything the author wrote. However, the entire premise is that online courses are somehow more likely to be poor quality than residential courses, and I certainly disagree with that.

    Where are these same concerns when evaluating residential courses? What is it about a residential course that makes it inherently better? The answers are likely based in the faculty’s/administrator’s perceptions and comfort zones than in any sort of empirical evidence.

    The field really should be beyond the question of which is better and should be considering methods for each mode of delivery.

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