Online Learning, Teaching and Misleading Opinions

A couple of pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post have attracted some attention over the past couple of weeks for their descriptions of online and blended-learning environments–and both have made the mistake of assuming that just because one experience is a certain way, that all experiences in these environments are that way. As I have said countless times, just because an experience is online or blended, does not make it necessarily good or bad, just as just because an experience is in a “traditional” face-to-face environment does not make it good or bad.

I wrote letters to the editors about both. Given that the editors chose not to publish them, I have chosen to publish them below.

*  *  *

In Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column, “Nothing can replace a good teacher,” (July 15, 2012), he cites the sad case of a school in Michigan as an example that technology alone won’t save our schools; we still will need teachers.

Mathews is right, which is why no serious advocate for the ability of technology to transform our education system suggests that technology will replace humans. The observation that many have instead made is that the job that we expect teachers to do today is super human; technology can help automate or improve on certain tasks to free teachers up to do what humans do best, including answering complex questions, fostering conversations, diving deeper into topics, and mentoring.

Technology is no silver bullet, but expecting every classroom in America to have a great teacher who can meet every child’s distinct learning needs given the demands of today’s job is a pipedream as well. By transitioning thoughtfully to a new education system powered by digital learning in which teachers’ roles are different from those of today but no less vital, we can bolster every child’s learning to help them realize their highest hopes and most daring dreams.

*  *  *

In the New York Times, the op-ed titled “The Trouble With Online Education,” failed to mention the  numerous ways  students and teachers can interact in online-learning environments—and how these can be far more robust than is possible in a traditional classroom or lecture hall-only setting. In my years of research on online learning, what I’ve found fascinating is that a vast majority of online learning teachers report that they get to know their students better than they did in their traditional face-to-face classes, and they say they can address students’ questions more effectively. Of course, just because a course is online does not mean it will be good, just as not every traditional lecture or classroom experience is good or bad. As Mr. Edmundson accurately said, there is no “single best way” for students to learn, so what’s important isn’t the medium in which material is taught, but how the course is designed within the medium.

*  *  *

Finally, for those seeking a good overall point of view explaining the problem with the op-ed from the New York Times, I recommend highly MIT senior lecturer Steve Spear’s blog on the piece, which you can read here. Spear presents the argument about why online education is valuable from a disruptive innovation perspective, as well as why the piece itself contains many misleading strands that are false generalizations.

-Michael Horn

This blog entry originally appeared on

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College