E-Learning According to Time Magazine

The Time cover.

You can also find this post on W&M’s E-Learning Blog.

I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the “issues” coverage offered in Time‘s recent cover article on online education, especially given its attention-seeking headline “College is Dead. Long Live College!”  I really didn’t expect it to have as much information as it did that would be of real interest to educators and .edu geeks in general.  However the author, Amanda Ripley, took the time to enroll in a few MOOC-style classes, and some of the things that struck her are the same ones I’ve been thinking about when it comes to producing e-learning.  A few highlights that struck me as particularly pertinent:

Best Practices

While e-learning is in a highly innovative phase of life (as educational trends go), there are already some best practices being established.  Chief among them, in my book, is production quality.  I’ve always been sensitive to this, and even as a child I could tell the difference between, say, a slickly produced commercial and a chintzy one with harsh lighting and distorted sound — and made corresponding assumptions about whatever they were selling.   Likewise, a bad recording of a classroom is just a crummy substitute for being in that room.

The physics class that really impressed Ripley instead had high production values, and employed a “brain-focused” pedagogy that included short segments, frequent “quizzes,” and questions to hold attention and focus.  Another technique raised in the article is to shift the focus of exercises from a culling/grading function to a learning function — allowing students to work on problems multiple times until mastery is attained.

Pros and Cons

The author also visited traditional classrooms at a couple of institutions, and after talking with teachers and students, came away with a few caveats about online education that are true no matter what production quality is on offer.  For example, working alone on an online class requires a level of motivation that’s a cut above what it takes to keep going in an in-person class; certain subjects require in-person labs that can’t be replicated online; and that there’s still “something special” about doing something in a real, live group of peers.

Deeper Conversation

The video that accompanies the online article offers an even deeper conversation that is probably of even greater interest to higher ed professionals.  The recording is of a Google Hangout that was broadcast following a larger conference of online and traditional educators and education leaders.  Participating were Michele Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation; Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera; and Arthur Levine of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, with Amanda Ripley moderating.  The video is just over twenty minutes, but touches on topics that get touched upon less often in e-learning conversations, such as reaching students that lack the social and economic capital to participate, the relationship of e-learning to remedial collegiate work, grade inflation, and how relative anonymity intersects with stereotype threat.  Even if you don’t read the textual article, I think you’ll find the video worth it if these sorts of topics are dear to you — especially since these are the kinds of realistic, deep, and thorny issues that must be addressed once the “disruptive technology” gilt wears off of e-learning practice.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.


  1. Don Caffee says:

    I dropped out of W&M in my second year. Now retired and living in another state it would be a joy to resume my W&M education via online courses. They are available elsewhere but it sure would be nice to attend W&M again.
    Don Caffee