The Modality Myth

Imagine a study that examined faculty attitudes towards the quality of learning in different classes.  Such a study might ask these sorts of questions:

  • Can large courses achieve learning outcomes that are equivalent to small seminars?
  • What are the most important quality indicators of a lecture-based education?
  • How does the quality of large courses compare with the quality of small seminars?
  • How supportive are institutions of small seminars?
  • Which should cost the student more — large lecture-based degree programs or those delivered in small seminars?
  • Are institutions expanding large lecture-based courses? Should they do so? To what extent do faculty feel that they are appropriately consulted in this decision-making process?

These questions are taken from a recent Inside Higher Ed promotion of a survey that examined faculty attitudes–not toward class size but toward online learning.  I’ve mostly replaced the words “in-person” and “online” with “small” or “large.”

The survey is an example of a common implied assumption: that “modality”–whether a course will be conducted face-to-face or online–is the most important variable influencing the quality of education.  This is the modality myth.

By focusing exclusively on modality, other crucial variables get obscured. For example, anyone who’s ever taught large and small classes knows they are different animals. But questions about class size seem more likely to be raised in debates about academic labor issues (faculty-student ratios and over-reliance on adjuncts and contract faculty, etc.), than in discussions of learning quality.

Similarly, instructors matter as much or more then modality.  Lecturing full-time in a 20-student class wastes the opportunities afforded by a small class.  Using the Internet to simply “push” content in an online class wastes the affordances of that environment.  A creative instructor can help both those environments come to life.

My point is a simple one.  Modality matters but it is just one of several major variables that impact the learning experience.  Back in the day when online education was new, perhaps it made sense to pay special attention to the novel issues modality raised.  But now, online education has expanded into many different forms.  It makes no more sense to think of “online courses” as a monolithic entity than it does to think of the 300-seat lecture hall and 10-seat seminar room as the the same, simply because they share the same modality.

So the next time you see a discussion focusing exclusively on online versus in-person courses, try plugging in other variables (large vs. small, active-learning vs. passive lecture) to get a much better sense of the range of relevant issues that may be influencing quality.