Pay Attention to the Man behind the Curtain! The Human Side of Online Learning


Pay Attention to the Man behind the Curtain! The Human Side of Online Learning

Noam Ebner   




Online education is here to stay. How ‘good’ will it be? That depends on the educators and their ability to humanize online education. This is a call-to-arms, and the fields of negotiation and dispute resolution should be on the front lines.



I am an online educator. 

I know my students’ learning aptitude and starting points. I also know their names, jobs and hobbies. Oh, and their pets’ names, their kids’ talents and their taste in TV shows. I know which one of my students constantly fights with her mom, who just went through divorce, whose husband reads the class material over her shoulder - and whether they disagreed over it. All of this gets folded back into our class conversations, which conveniently focus on topics of negotiation and conflict.

At The Werner Institute at Creighton University’s School of Law, we offered a master’s program in negotiation and dispute resolution on campus - and then decided to eliminate geography as a barrier to education by offering it online. With our faculty’s background in what is now being called “traditional classroom teaching”, we decided to hold ourselves to the same standards in online education – by eliminating ‘distance’ as an acceptable excuse for anything less than excellence in our teaching.

In encounters with other teachers, in the field of conflict and beyond, I’m often asked what of the 5,000 miles separating between my students and myself, or the hundreds of miles separating between each of them? My answer: Not an issue.

While many teachers respond to this simple answer with understanding and even relief, other educators respond as if I had spit in their face. They insist on telling me that it is an issue - regardless of my own experience, or of the experiences of my students.  I’ve heard every type of educators’ dismissal of online learning: “It can’t be done in our field” and “You can’t really teach that way” are common rebuffs. And, of course, one of my favorites: “Online education can never provide high-quality teaching, of the type achieved in the classroom” (see, for example, Mark Edmundson, “The Trouble with Online Education”). To a person, these educators follow up on this summary dismissal of online education with their evidence:  an anecdote about a good teaching moment the teacher had in a classroom, a story about an online class s/he visited, or his or her favorite teaching metaphor, which for some reason doesn’t play out well when discussing an online classroom.

Teachers’ concerns about teaching online are always couched in excellent pedagogical terms. They rarely say “I don’t know how to do it”, “I’m scared by technology” or “I don’t like change”. It is always about the essence of good teaching, which, they inform me, requires an in-class dialogue. It requires that teachers utilize their “pedagogical sixth sense” for feeling the heartbeat of the class. It requires the creation of a genuine intellectual community in which students’ input – spoken and sensed – must be folded back into the classroom by the teacher.  After gracing me with this lecture on education they go for the knockout, by declaring unequivocally that none of this can happen online. As a result, educationally speaking, online teaching is second-rate at best, hokum at worst.

I try to focus on these teachers’ good intentions – and I certainly identify, wholeheartedly, with their educational shopping list. It’s only their bottom-line opinion-as-fact that I find both wrong and dangerously unsubstantiated.

Wrong, because as much as I respect a good teacher’s intuition, to say nothing of my appreciation for good metaphors for the artistry of teaching, they don’t constitute facts, and can always be matched or overridden by opposite experiences or metaphors. I’ll toss my own five years of teaching online (and twelve years in classrooms) into the ring: I teach negotiation and dispute resolution online - fields whose pedagogy absolutely relies on all of the points listed: teacher sensitivity, immediacy and flexibility, ongoing dialogue and a tangible sense of meaningful classroom community. In fact, on all these points and others – just to show there are two sides in this educational debate – online learning sometimes leaves traditional classroom learning in the dust. Many other teachers - in our program and elsewhere – experience this as well.  In this, there is no difference between the online and the brick-and-mortar classroom: It is neither the bricks nor the mortar that make for good education; rather the spirit of the institution, the nature and effort of the students, and above all the skill, effort and dedication of the teacher. It has always been that way, and still is – internet notwithstanding. 

Dangerously unsubstantiated, as it is time to set anecdotes aside or we’re all going to be thrown out with the bathwater. A student recently shared an important maxim with me (in an online forum – how’s that, to debunk notions that bi-directional communication channels don’t function well online?): The plural of “anecdote” is “anecdotes” – not “evidence”. If educators are going to debate online learning (below, I’ll suggest we abandon this in favor of the far more important work facing us), we need to bring the science into it: Thousands of pages (and e-pages) of books and journal articles have been written on both the efficacy of online learning and on ways for creating dialogue, immediacy and meaningful interaction in this venue. At this point in the game, coming out against online education because it doesn’t fit with one’s favorite teaching-as-jazz-improvisation or teaching-as-cooking metaphor is comparable to my debunking global warming on the grounds that I had a chilly evening up in the mountains last week. If the discussion amongst educators remains at this level, university administrators will have us all replaced by robots while we’re still busy comparing the virtues of our third-grade teachers.

The bottom line is that all those professional, committed, caring educators out there, who were themselves brought up (as I was) learning in traditional classrooms, and who cut their teeth and dedicated much of  their careers (as I did) to teaching those same classrooms, need to adopt a new approach to their pedagogical concern with online teaching: Get over it.

Let me tell you why:

The debate ‘for’ and ‘against’ online education is, from an educator’s point of view, a complete waste of time. Being ‘against’ online education is like being ‘against’ online newspapers. It is almost comparable to being ‘against’ Halley’s Comet. The historical train has already left the station.

Rejecting online education under the flag of ‘protecting high-quality teaching’ is fighting the wrong enemy on the wrong battlefield. Educators need to understand that the real differentiation between high and low -quality education, from a teacher’s perspective, is not between face-to-face and online course delivery. An easy and convenient line to draw, this is a phantom division nonetheless. The more important demarcation line lies, instead, between teacher-active and teacher-diminished education.

The first of these two approaches reflects traditional education at its best, delivered online or offline, and it requires teachers to take responsibility for topic matter, content, pace, debate and student participation. Above all, teachers constantly, intentionally, challenge their students.

The second type of education involves a different role for teachers. Two models for teacher-diminished education are currently trending. First, Massive Open Online Classes (as discussed, for example, by Tamar Lewin in her New York Times article), in which teachers are responsible for putting material together, but students are wholly responsible for their own learning. If they have questions, they can confer with other students; if they can’t maintain motivation, or suffer other setbacks, they can drop the course; indeed – most of them do.

In another model of teacher-diminished education (adopted by some of the newer, primarily-online or online-only institutions), class-size remains the traditional size, but the teacher is professionally castrated.  A bevy of ‘specialists’ - Subject Matter Experts, Instructional Designers, Curricular Marketing Consultants and other Capitalized Roles - convene to create the new most important unit of measurement  - the course ( ‘module’ is sometimes the term of art). Once prepared (‘designed’) - usually, in a largely canned format, adjunct instructors (who might as well be called ‘Content Technicians’) are hired to oversee students’ performance. Their job might focus on evaluation or on timekeeping – but little else. These teachers – and my heart goes out to them - are the low people on the organizational totem pole in this model. With university administrators, students, designers and marketing consultants all ranked above them, they can lump it or leave it.

The skyrocketing trends preferring teacher-diminished education necessitate that all professionals who see themselves as real educators set aside their intuitive preference for one delivery medium over the other and join the effort to develop top-quality teaching in the online world.  It isn’t easy to admit that the waters around you have grown – it never is. Still, understanding the economical and institutional forces driving education into a teaching-diminished model, true educators must devote their attention to developing excellent teaching practices for online classrooms, based on – and pushing the envelopes of – their substantial experience in the classroom.

What is the key challenge to quality online education, based on the intuitive kickback listed above? Teachers saying that online learning can’t provide for dialogue, can’t create community and can’t provide teachers and students with a feel for one another are essentially concerned that the cold nature of the Internet can’t support such complex interactions, can’t balance personal work with group interactions, doesn’t allow for simultaneous support and challenge, doesn’t provide for immediacy, flexibility, social presence and feedback loops. These teachers effectively pinpoint the key to teaching online: We need to stand up to the challenge of successfully humanizing online education. If we succeed in that humanizing process, we will be able to take teacher-active stance: There is a medium, but there is also a message, and yes – there is a messenger in the house. The teacher has not pushed ‘play’ and left the building.

The good news is that online, teachers can be every bit as attentive, masterful, challenging and immediate as in classroom learning. If you are a good teacher, you are probably a reflective enough practitioner to be capable of picking apart your own pedagogy. If you can do this, chances are you will be able to put it back together online. When you hit a counterintuitive point – you will need to develop a new set of skills or practices. To humanize the educational experience, you’ll find yourself going through mind-shifts and re-developing familiar skills.  You need to develop a new kind of listening. You need to wrap your head around a different sense of time, to hold a web of intellectual tension together for a few days or a week (depending on the course format) instead of for an hour-and-a-half classroom segment. You need to find your online teaching voice, which might be very different from your classroom tone.                              

Speaking from the perspective of my own discipline, I’d suggest that mastering the art of teaching online is an area to which the field of negotiation and dispute resolution can contribute a great deal. This field endeavors to explain many different types of human interactions in transactional, relational and communication-based terms, and to provide frameworks for understanding and improving these interactions. Having worked at the meeting points of online negotiation and online education for several years, I can point out specific examples of the value of the understanding the former for mastering the latter. Negotiating through online communication media is a research area which has received a great deal of attention over the past few years, More recently, calls for incorporating online interactions into negotiation teaching and training have been translated into practice, with implications for student assessment and teaching methods,  as well as for other motivational activities such as online negotiation and mediation competitions. However, these are only the contributions that one field can make to the art of humanizing online education. As more educators, from different disciplines, pick up the gauntlet, we should expect to see a wealth of interdisciplinary wisdom providing tools for overcoming this challenge.

What might be the overall key to humanizing online education? As a Jewish educator in a Jesuit institution, I have two educational traditions converging to provide a very simple answer to that one: As a teacher, your focus needs to be on each student, not only on the course. Even though you might preset large swathes of the latter, and will surely check in and monitor that level regularly, your real-time focus needs to be on the former. As you begin to teach online, this key might make a lot more sense than it does now.

So here’s the challenge, online-skeptic educators: This is not a simplistic or generational call not to stand in the doorways or block up the halls.  This is a call to arms.

At this point in time, for a real educator, standing on the sidelines saying “It can’t be done” and “It isn’t high-quality” just in order to avoid the effort it takes to humanize online education is simply a cop-out.

It is a cop-out because it undermines the incredible struggle that real educators wage today. Whatever your personal preference is regarding online education, there’s a battle outside, and it’s raging.  Looking ahead at the upcoming turmoil of the Online Education Wars (including the recent skirmish at the University of Virginia, which centered on online learning), we need to do our very best to be where our students are, when they need us, even if that is over the Internet.

It is a cop-out because  if we, the experienced, expert educators, don’t figure out how to make online education top-notch, who is going to provide guidance to the young post-doc down the hall, when s/he is tasked by the department chair to deliver a course online? 

Finally, it is a cop-out as, if there is any one thing that will cause universities to prefer teacher-active education to a more cost-efficient teacher-diminished approach, it will be students demanding, with their minds, hearts and wallets, real teaching, of the type we get up in the morning eager to do.

That’s right: Once more unto the breach, educators. 


Noam Ebner chairs the online graduate degree program in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University School of Law. He’s written widely on negotiation and dispute resolution pedagogy – in traditional and online settings.


Views: 757

Comment by Jillian Post on October 17, 2012 at 2:52pm

So..... your next project needs to be developing a tool to teach online educators how to do it. You wrote the book Noam. Even at the Werner Institute, not all online educators are created equal. Just like all things in life.... for some  that are well suited or can learn, it comes off very effectively. But when it doesn't come off effectively, students feel underwhelmed to say the least. (btw, no argument from me that online education will be ever increasing and that's fine by me.)


Comment by Mat Beecher on October 17, 2012 at 3:04pm

As a past online student, I can attest to Professor Ebner's ability to humanize the online classroom. As a whole, the faculty at the Werner Institute excels at this particular art. Admittedly, I was somewhat skeptical in the beginning about an online education, because in many ways I've been socially constructed to assume the 'brick and mortar' campus is the only way to learn. By the second week of the Werner Institute Online M.S. program in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, I clearly understood and valued the power and potential of the online educational experience. I could go into the million reasons (probably more) why online education is an amazing thing, but in an effort to keep this comment short I'll resist doing so. I will say this, I appreciate the effort of the faculty at the Werner Institute to make the online experience friendly and humanistic, and I enjoyed the message of the writing above. It is essential that we don't let Cyberspace take the humanity out of our experiences together online. Being able to go global without going anywhere is amazing, but so is the human experience. Fortunately, with great thinkers and leaders (like Noam) out there identifying these issues and bringing attention to them, we should all have no fear to boldly travel into the future together as people, meeting online, in a virtual world, known affectionately as Cyberspace - a place where geographical barriers don't really exist. Of course, there is the access to technology barrier and social equity issues to consider, but that's a whole other can of worms :) Thanks for your thoughts Professor Ebner!

Comment by Noam Ebner on October 20, 2012 at 1:40am

@Mat, @Jillian -

Thank you.

And thanks for adding in your insights and experience. Students voices are underrepresented in the debate on online learning - and the two of you would make wonderful representatives.

Comment by Noam Ebner on October 28, 2012 at 4:04am

Check out other comments on the Online Learning Wars here!


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