Criticizing Without the Facts

July 8, 2020

Dear IHE Editors:

In a “Letter to the Editor” in his “Learning Innovation” blog entry in Inside Higher Ed today (7/7/20), Joshua Kim takes the IHE editors to task for publishing an opinion piece by Jeff Kolnick questioning how administrators are making decisions requiring faculty members to return to classroom instruction during the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. Dr. Kim chooses not to address the substance of Dr. Kolnick’s article, whose concerns he claims to share, but instead seizes on a couple of generalizations about online learning in Dr. Kolnick’s piece. Dr. Kim admonishes, “In choosing which opinion piece to publish ...  IHE should be careful to consider the knowledge and expertise that those submitting Views articles bring to the subject.”

I do not doubt Dr. Kim’s own knowledge and expertise in educational technology, yet he does himself no favors in the citation that he links to support his own generalizations about online learning. Dr. Kim claims that “There is an enormous amount of literature examining the effectiveness of online education,” yet the very article he links -- a 2015 review of empirical literature, 2013-14 -- begins by noting “a dearth of rigorous research done on the learning outcomes associated with online and hybrid learning.”  

Of studies prior to 2013, the review author notes, “few have been methodologically rigorous enough to provide conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of online or hybrid learning.” Those studies and the ones reviewed in the 2013-14 period do seem to support Dr. Kim’s broad contentions that online learning can be as effective as in traditional classroom situations, though they also do not provide evidence of its superiority to the classroom. 

Moreover, of the 12 studies from 2013-14 being reviewed, “only one employs a randomized controlled trial, and two more utilize quasi-experimental research designs to estimate the causal impact of online delivery formats on student outcomes.... Yet, for the vast majority of studies analyzed, there has been little progress in addressing ... methodological shortcomings ... [and] there remains an insufficient body of evidence regarding the cost-effectiveness of online and technology-enhanced learning....“

Having been retired from university teaching, some of it in hybrid formats, for the last five years, I can only assume that there have been continuing and, I hope, better-designed studies. If so, they might have provided Dr. Kim with better evidence to support his own assertions. 

All of this, however, should be beside the point. The question at hand is how universities -- their administrators, faculty members, and students—will deal with the ongoing pandemic. Right now, Minnesota is one of the few states whose health data are trending in encouraging directions, but there is no guarantee that the situation will not change. Southwest Minnesota State University, where Dr. Kolnick teaches, is in one of the state’s less populated regions, but that area (including nearby sections of Iowa and South Dakota) houses a number of meat-packing plants that have been particular disease “hot spots” at risk of spreading COVID19 into the broader populations. 

Other risks remain as well, and faculty across the country share Dr. Kolnick’s worries.  (See, for example, this recent article by a Penn State faculty member.) Dr. Kolnick and Dr. Kim are in agreement that courses, whether in a classroom or online, must be well-designed and well-delivered.  If Dr. Kim has concrete suggestions that would enable collaborative engagement that is not dictated by administrators sitting at a far remove from the individuals actively involved  in teaching and learning, he would make better use of his own IHE platform.

Donald F. Larsson, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Disclosure: Dr. Larsson served as campus faculty union president, and alongside Jeff Kolnick on the Board and as state President of the Inter Faculty Organization, the bargaining unit for the seven Minnesota state universities.

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