Mark Edmundson has written an Op-Ed in the New York Times on online education that, from where I sit, is strangely out of touch with the cutting edge of online education. Mind you, I don't know many professors who would rather teach online than onsite, and I don't know many students who would rather take classes online than onsite.
Doesn't matter. The overwhelming majority of the adult college market right now is online and will be for the rest of history as far as I can tell. The just out of high school crowd is a little different, since for them college is as much a social phenomenon as a learning one.
This line is very revealing: Online education "tends to be a monologue and not a real dialog." Really? Maybe if a professor videos a lecture of him/herself. I can imagine that there are a lot of newbies to online education that are just trying to transfer the live classroom to recordings without actually adjusting the pedagogy. Let's be clear here, from what I can tell Coursera is not state of the art online education. It's recorded onsite education. It's great for a hobby on the side.
But that's not normally the way those of us who have been in the business for 15 years are doing it. Any video pieces are usually limited to 10-20 minutes or less. Lecture is anathema in online education. Rather, it's about problem based and collaboratively-constructed knowledge. Good online education requires great intentionality in design and great facilitators in implementation.
There is lots of discussion, way more than in a traditional classroom. Everyone has to participate or else you're not counted as present. There is way more writing than in a traditional class and teaching an online class is far more demanding than teaching a traditional one. Students expect feedback and they expect it within a week. No strolling into class and just talking. No one paper at the end of the semester that the student never gets back. It's massively demanding.
There are potential downsides we're working on. Online teaching doesn't generally attract genius professors. That requires new innovations. For example, I've heard of some courses that bring in world class scholars (who aren't the course professor) for a live 30 minute dialog via Adobe Connect, Skype, or some other platform. But let's be honest, most traditional college classes aren't taught by geniuses either. In fact, most geniuses are actually pretty bad teachers.
I do agree with Edmundson a little about learning from students. If a professor learns too much from students about the subject they're an expert in, they aren't much of an expert. I don't learn much from students when I'm teaching Greek (although I do learn from questions I don't know the answer to, which in part is a sign that I'm not as much of an expert as I could be). Again, a comment more on the average professor in America perhaps than anything else.
All of that is to say that in these days of high bandwidth, there is almost nothing the traditional classroom does that can't be done online--including seeing the face of every student via Adobe Connect.