Is Virtual Real?

In his opinion article, There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom, Clifford Orwin argues that only traditional classroom based teaching is authentic main points education requires real people and real dialogue of “electricity that crackles through a successful classroom” and a “real” professor must be physically present to act as a “model” in the “formation of a whole person”. (Orwin, 2012)

At the heart of teaching, for Orwin, is traditional time and space with dialogue and the physical presence of a professor equating to a “real” experience. (Orwin, 2012) Anything less is unauthentic and only deserving of those who “who lack access to a real education”. As the voice of authentic education, Orwin is expert, formal authority and personal model.

“Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it. It matters to the students not just to hear what I say but to hear the voice in which I say it – the hesitations as well as the certainties.” (Orwin, 2012)

Orwin echoes Harold Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind, not the argument, but the tone and manner and by positioning themselves as protectors of traditional education. Both offer reactionary arguments in favour of preservation of tradition argued in a grumpy manner.

Orwin positions the physically present professor as means of transmitting culture and sharing knowledge towards forming of the “the whole person”. (Orwin, 2012) Orwin only touches on this traditionalist view and provides no definition to what “whole person” means, but we are left with the impression that this whole person is only achievable by means of specific education in the presence of a tweedy professor transmitting education and culture, and some how, that tweed will rub off on to their students.

“By education I mean formation of the whole person, to which the humanities have traditionally aspired – as have the natural and social sciences in their noblest conceptions of themselves.” (Orwin, 2012)

Orwin references Mark Edmundson’s opinion piece, The Trouble With Online Education, in the New York Times and echo Edmundson’s belief in dialogue. Edmundson writes that only physical spaces and physical presence can “create genuine intellectual community” and that teaching “is a matter of dialogue”. (Edmundson, 2012) Both Edmundson and Orwin view online dialogue as inauthentic and unexciting.

“Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavour. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” (Edmundson, 2012)

“But so-called education without live dialogue between teacher and student should excite no one.” (Irwin, 2012)

Traditional classrooms, in the manner of those described by Orwin and Edmundson, favour and reward certain personalities and behaviours over others; Outspoken, extroverted, and usually male voices dominate discussion. There is no time for reflection and space for others, such as introverts, active listeners, those who require time for reflective thinking, those with differing abilities.

In my discussion with Megan McLaughlin, an online educator at the Royal Tyyrell Museum, she shared a story in which a young student with autism whose class participated in a video conferencing program, a virtual field trip, who asked several questions about dinosaurs revealing both his excitement and interest in the subject matter. Afterwards, the teacher told McLaughlin that this student had never spoken once during class.

Orwin and Edmundson both fail to understand online education, its techniques and technologies. They both share a view of online education being canned and inauthentic. They both fail to acknowledge the impact of analogue, pre-internet avenues for creating dialogue, such as correspondence via mail, journals, conferences, books, op-ed articles and others.

In his response to Edmundson, Donald R. Shaffer writes in his blog, In Defence of Online Education, that dialogue is the centre of online education and that, in his experience, there is more dialogue and discussion in online classrooms than in traditional classrooms.

“An online class is all about dialogue. In every online classroom, its heart and soul are the discussion forums, where the students converse about the course material with their instructor, and even more importantly, with each other. It is simply not possible to pass an online class without participating extensively and substantively in the class discussion. The courses are deliberately structured that way. An online classroom is all about students interacting and helping each other—in other words, practicing active learning.” (Shaffer, 2012)

The debate between online versus traditional education is really an attempt at comparing apples and oranges. One does not replace the other and they both over authentic experiences and are aimed at different audiences. Online learning does have challenges and weaknesses but it offers space and time to people with differing abilities and learning styles. It allows for voice for many who would not have the time and space for voice in traditional classrooms.

Missing from the discussion is that online and traditional models are not the only models available. Blended learning models offer a mix between classroom and online learning, both supplementing and complimenting one another.


Edmundson, M. (2012). The Trouble With Online Education. Retrieved from:

Orwin, C. (2012) There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom. Retrieved from:

Shaffer, D. R. (2012). In Defence of Online Education. Retrieved from:

Additional notes:

Each model has it’s own context and audiences. I spoke with Daniel Wolfe at the American Museum of Natural History about the success and longevity of their online courses for K-12 science teachers: 13 courses over 15 years on Moodle. The MET, in comparison, used AMNH’s LMS for online courses for art teachers, but abandoned it less then 2 years later preferring a blended approach with a mix of social media, which they have found effective.

Alternative education spaces provides voice for those who don’t have voice in the classroom. The example I used of a student with autism is a wonderful example. I myself prefer to reflect, research prior to responding. I feel I provide a more thorough response.

I read the other day of the rise of the microphone strategy employed be female White House staffers. When a woman speaks, she references another woman’s idea and cites her name. This is to combat men referencing ideas and assuming ownership as their own. Women control their ideas using this technique.


About jhounslow

Soccer enthusiast, cyclist, web developer, e-learning professional, educator, husband to a graduate student, and father of four daughters.
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