Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Online Learning

Some weeks ago the gentleman beau and I decided to take advantage of the sizzling merciless soul killing heat summer weather by taking a leisurely canoe ride. Doesn't that sound nice? After slathering ourselves in SPF-275 cream, we piled into a massive van of strangers to take the short ride to our launch point. Since we are both academic types, our conversation turned to online teaching as the van meander its way up the river. The gentleman beau has experience teaching online classes, but I do not. We both agreed nonetheless that online classes seem like bad news if one cares about quality education. We rehearsed the usual arguments against online courses: They reduce contact between professors and students; they reduce contact between students and students; they are often less rigorous; students are frequently left directionless and rarely put forward as much effort as a brick-and-mortar class; they compete with World of Warcraft for a student's attention; parents hate them and feel they are a “cheat” by the university. We hardly came up with novel critiques in other words. In that heat, one can’t expect me to be at my best. Just about the time that I began the inevitable claim that online classes were a harbinger of the pending demise of higher education as we know it, the stranger seated in front of me turned with daggers in her eyes. “I did my degree with many on-line classes,” she said curtly, “And they were really hard.” For a split second I swear that I could feel a slight tinge in a blood vessel in my brain as she attempted to telepathically explode my head.

Now this encounter took me back a bit and not just because I imagined that she hoped to spread my gray matter across the interior of the van. First, I don’t like to out-and-out insult people in public. That’s why I have this blog – I like to insult people virtually. Second, it dawned on me that my stance on online classes belied my status working for an elite institution.


Most professors and parents continue to consider online classes dubious at best (even those who actually teach them). Up until this point, taking a majority of online course work made one’s degree seem like a modern day correspondence course. Only you didn't have to draw the image on the back of the matchbook first. Despite this, two constituent groups really love the online courses: students and administrators. If they had their way, every university would have more of an online presence than a closeted Republican member of the House of Representatives looking to get laid. What? This ain’t a blog for children.

The stark reality is that most colleges and universities are exponentially increasing their online offerings. Cluck-clucking about it as a moral crisis might be easy (and fun too!), but it will not reverse the trend. Those who followed the recent showdown between the President of the University of Virginia and its governing board know that the latter felt the former moved too slowly in promoting online classes. If one of the original “public ivies” is about to cave into this pressure we should acknowledge that online classes are to be with us for quite some time. The impulse is there for a number of reasons. First, online classes are economical. Without needing to find actual classroom space, online classes can be as large as possible while still using just a single faculty member (or, worse, a severely underpaid adjunct). Second, liberal arts colleges and small regional universities are feeling the pressure from for-profit universities. As Republican-controlled legislatures and governors slash budgets to state-supported higher education the need to compete for every tuition dollar is getting greater and greater. Small colleges and universities have no choice but to try and accommodate the impulses that drive students to for-profit institutions.

Anybody who has a penchant for late-night television has seen the ads for these shady institutions promising the ease of a college education without ever having to change out of your pajamas or put down the tub of Ben-and-Jerry’s. Those ads make taking online classes seem like a virtual slumber party complete with intellectual tickle fights. Given what my students show up wearing in my actual class, though, I am left wondering if that is a real difference. It is no wonder that students who have to work or tend to family duties would find such an avenue to a college degree appealing. They simply need the flexibility.


This is no longer a debate about whether universities should offer online classes. The question now is what type of standards we are going to expect from them. The truth is that there are some students in online classes, like my fellow canoeist, who have the necessary motivation and discipline to make such a degree meaningful. It is also true that online classes continue to have the presumption of being easier than brick-and-mortar classes. This, in part, likely generated the defensiveness to my critiques. Those two things have to be reconciled.

To my mind, humanities professors (including me) have been slow to accept the new reality. This is especially true for those of us who teach at elite institutions that have not started pushing faculty to offer at least some of their classes online – yet. No, I am not advising that we all run out and start posting online classes like a blog troll posts incendiary comments. Rather, I am thinking that we need to cede the question over whether online classes provide good/bad learning environments in favor of considering how online classes can be taught using good, ethical pedagogies. Even if we are not directly involved in teaching an online class, we are nonetheless training graduate students who are most likely going to land a job at an institution that will expect, if not require, them to apportion part of their teaching effort to online classes. It is our obligation to them and their future students to start to model ethical uses of new teaching technologies.

To that end, we need to first identify and reject the models that favor corporate profit over learning. I was recently horrified when an acquaintance of mine reported that the nearby university where he teaches had purchased “modules” from some unknown company. He, the instructor of the class, had almost no control over the content, assignments, or lectures of the class that he was “teaching.” Instead, he became a glorified tech operator and grader. This, it seems to me, is not why we hire individuals with unique specialities to teach classes.


The reverse must also be guarded against. Academic associations and unions should proactively fight administrative efforts to own online classes generated by faculty members. There is a distinct danger that once a professor pours concerted effort into creating a novel and interesting online class that the material will then be pimped out as the aforementioned “modules’ to other universities. Or, even locally, the adminstration should not be allowed to replace the allegedly expensive professor with a graduate student or underpaid adjunct who simply takes control of the web materials. The content and structure of a course should be considered a type of intellectual property that belongs to the instructor.



On the faculty side, if we are going to venture into new learning technologies, then we also need to bring with us the best practices that we now take for granted in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Over the past twenty years, for instance, flat out lecturing has come to be seen as one of the least valuable means for engaging students. So I am frequently surprised that much of the online content created for classes simply involves videotaped lectures that have been uploaded for students to watch. Trust me, unless those videos include skateboarding kittens or substantive out takes from Modern Family, the students are barely going to pay attention. Much as we now create exercises and assignments that have students proactively engaged and talking in brick-and-mortar classes, so too should we dump the prerecorded lecture in favor of things that get students engaged online. This might mean that we call upon individuals with programming and technical skills beyond the average humanities professor. One model that intrigued me, for instance, originated in Canada. Students attempted to “solve”some significant historic crimes from the Canadian past. In that instance, the online materials became part of a larger puzzle that students needed to piece together. Along the way, they happened to learn important cultural contexts that informed each crime (racial attitudes, gender assumptions, regional bias). Doesn’t that sound more interesting to you than downloading a 50 minute talking head rambling on about the Articles of Confederation? Creative technological innovations, of course, will require technological and staff investments from universities and colleges. It seems to me, though, given that these courses will ultimately generate more tuition dollars than a brick-and-mortar class, it is the least that they can do.


Don’t let the blog fool you, though. I am remarkably unsavvy when it comes to technology and probably don’t have the best imagination to tackle this problem. Nonetheless, I do think that the time has come when humanities professors have to engage online learning in a serious way. It’s not going anywhere. Our best bet is that we take control of the conversation to show the difference between a quality online learning experience and the hasty for-profit nonsense.

15 comments:

Alan said...

I guess it depends on whether or not it is possible to have a quality online learning experience. I'd say no. But even if one could, is it the *same* quality? If not, that's a pretty significant problem.

It's interesting that so few of the arguments for online education work in other contexts. Why go to a concert? You can just get the CD. Why go to your place of worship? You can just read the Torah/Bible/Gita/etc. yourself. Why go to a football, basketball, or baseball game? You can just watch it on TV. Why go to a friend's birthday party? You can just wish them happy birthday via facebook. Why go to a bar with friends? You can just drink alone in the dark. Why have sex? There's always online porn.

Either something special and worthwhile happens in class, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then an online class is probably no better or worse than an in-person class. Or perhaps professors could work harder to make sure that something special and worthwhile happens in class that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Online stuff is probably good for simple training, but I'm pretty dubious that it is useful for real education. But then, I've never bought the I'm-just-here-too-pour-ideas-into-your-head notion of education on which it is based, so I'm automatically biased against it.

Oh...and labs. :)

Mel said...

By sheer coincidence, I happened to see you'd posted this as I was working my way around to finishing the last bit of work for my second online course this summer. Having done a good bit of online coursework over the past few years, I can offer at least one perspective.

I've done two graduate certificate programs online through UNC's School of Public Health, and I'm currently doing my MPH online through UMass Amherst. The former is one of the top three schools of public health in the US, pretty consistently ranked alongside Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Their online coursework is accordingly rigorous and easily required as much time and went into as much depth as face-to-face coursework, and I would say that my direct interactions with the professors were just as substantive in the online format as they would have been in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

The UMass program was the first of its type in the nation, and although the school doesn't have quite the luster of UNC, it also doesn't carry the same pricetag, which was the ultimate deciding factor. It's a fully accredited program, and I have found that the coursework requires a similar amount of work.

The biggest advantage of the online format for me is that I can pursue the coursework and the degree while still earning a living. This was one of the reasons my first go 'round at grad school didn't end so well. Although I expect there are a fair number of "pour-ideas-into-you-head" programs, to use Alan's phraseology, the programs I've been enrolled in have required a considerable amount of reading, research, and serious thought.

Additionally, most of them have required active participation via class discussion boards. If you wish to do well, you have to spend time reading what others have written, respond with cogent thoughts, and put forward your own original observations.

The profs can monitor student activity - time logged in, discussion threads viewed, etc. It may be possible to game the system, but why spend the time clicking through the discussion boards if you're not going to actively engage?

I expect there are very likely online degree programs that do act as virtual diploma mills, but that has most definitely not been my personal experience, quite likely because I took the time to research and balance economic considerations against school reputation. And now, I've got to finish up my coursework for the term so I can have a stress-free vacation in Iceland.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I teach writing online (as well as in traditional face to face and hybrid -- half online -- formats), and I've found it works well, probably because it's a good match of course and platform (my writing course is already very workshop- and other group-activity based, so the translation to the online format wasn't all that difficult).

But we are now being pressured to "modularize," and, to some extent, standardize, with, yes, the hope that this will somehow lead to a cheaper way to teach the same classes (and because this is a way to cope with the fact that the program regularly hires people at the last minute). But my classes are quirky (usefully so, I hope); I and my colleagues in a very large program take different routes to fulfilling the same course goals, and gain a lot from comparing notes (and sometimes, disagreeing about what we should do, and why). They'd have problems using some of my assignments, and vice versa. The program has some clear directions, but it's moving in them somewhat irregularly, amoeba-like, which is, I believe, one of its strengths.

Requiring us all to use the same modularized course would be basically the same as requiring us all to use the same textbook (and many of us don't even use textbooks): it would curtail creativity and the ongoing conversation that moves the program forward, however haphazardly. The upside, of course, would be standardization and predictability. But I think we already do a pretty good job of making sure students learn some core concepts and skills. Also, after a year or so of teaching a course someone else designed, I'd probably go mad from boredom and/or frustration (but would, of course, be easily and cheaply replaced).

So, yes, I'd say that handcrafted, individualized, online classes created and regularly updated by the teacher/creator, can be as good as traditional classes. But that is not what most schools are talking about when they say "online learning," and it's definitely not what they're talking about if they expect to save money (coping with issues of distance, time lost to traffic/commuting, and/or limited classroom space are, to my mind, more appropriate reasons for moving some course work online, but students need to be warned that course work will still take substantial time -- 3-4 hours per week per credit hour in a regular semester. That time, unlike commuting time, cannot be "saved," though it can be time-shifted to some degree, and failure to allow enough time is, in my experience, the single most common reason students fail/fail to complete online classes).

vuboq said...

You just had to mention Iceland again, didn't you , Dr. Mel.

I have no experience with online courses; however, I think that the Pottery Lite App pales in comparison to my instructor-led pottery class.

Also, maybe you should engage Clio Bluestocking. Or check out her blog. She spent several years teaching online courses.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Well, thank you for that introduction, Vuboq!

I have complained non-stop about this issued for the past two or three years; and I acutally agree with what everyone has said here. Obviously, there is no stopping online education. In and of itself it is just a thing that can be either good or bad. Unfortunately, the powers that be promoted and pushed it on professors -- at least where I used to teach -- in such a way that quality education was clearly the last thing in which they were interested. They wanted to pack classes with as many students as possible, open as many sections as possible, have these "modules" or "common courses" in which the professor was nothing more than graders with no content control at all (as mentioned by Contingent Cassandra), and provide no on site tech support for either professor or student.

Teaching online can be done well, even by the least tech-savvy of professors, but the class size has to be small to allow the professor to give the kind of individual attention to each student that the format requires. When I had 15 -- or even 20 -- students in a class, I had a great class. I could help the students write better and watch them improve both their writing and their understanding of the information. When I had two classes of 30 students each (plus three traditional classes of the same), I burned out and, as a result, felt I did my absolute worst teaching.

Then, of course, online classes work only for the most highly motivated of students, those who can work independently, don't require the structure of showing up for class three hours each week but understand they still have to put in hours of work each week, and have at least moderate writing skills. They are great students, but they weren't the majority. So, the failure rate was very high, mostly because the students just stopped checking in to the class or doing the assignments -- and it wasn't just me, all of my colleagues both in history and out said that was true of all online classes. The school, of course, got their tuition, the student got an F, and I felt like a failure at my job.

Anyway, as I said, online education can be done well, but it isn't a cure-all for whatever problem a school is facing nor is it best for every student or professor. It requires the kind of investment that the schools don't want to make and some understanding of its limits.

GayProf said...

Alan: I agree with you that in person teaching will always be superior to online courses. Still, as the commentators note, it is here to stay. So now it is a matter of making sure it is as good as possible (while also defending the in person classes where they exist).

Mel: You are likely the ideal type of student for an online program: motivated, responsible, professional. As Clio notes below, problems really emerge among students who have not yet learned those skills.

And, like VUBOQ, I am jealous of Iceland. Don't you need some traveling companions to go with you?

Contingent Cassandra: Thanks for weighing in on this. The "modules" strikes me as online learning at its worst. Hopefully your faculty can unite against such a move. It might even be worth launching a story in the student newspaper about how the administration wants to cheapen (literally) students' education.

VUBOQ: Well, all my pottery is virtual. It's so much more tidy that way.

Clio: It's good to see you again! I think many people in the profession do not realize just how common online teaching had become. Your experience is likely quite widespread, but the scope has not yet registered I don't think.

rosmar said...

One thing I've been curious about is how do professors of online courses have any sense of whether people are paying other people to take the course for them? It seems like cheating, which is already too common in face-to-face courses, could be even more common online.

I also am curious about how online teaching affects students when they need letters of recommendation.

I have a few friends who do online teaching, and I have seen wide variation in how interactive the courses are--some seem quite good.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Clio Bluestocking brings up another important point: in many places, and especially for the 70% of us who aren't on the tenure track (and probably also the proportion of the other 30% who are currently seeking tenure), it's not a question of whether we will teach online, but what the online courses will look like. For that reason, it's very important for tenured faculty like you, GayProf, to take an interest, even though you are, perhaps, the only segment of the faculty who could simply reject online teaching out of hand. Like it or not, it's part of the landscape, and those of us who really can't choose not to do it (at least not without putting our jobs in peril, all the more so if we are over forty, and our objections might be seen as signs of being behind the times, even if we were, in fact, early adopters) have neither the time nor the power to ask the question that needs to be asked -- "what makes for a high-quality online learning experience?" -- and keep asking it 'til it is satisfactorily answered.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the textbook/course publishing industry is beginning to bear some resemblance to the pharmaceutical industry, in the sense of being willing and able to sponsor studies, certification programs, etc., etc. that support the worth of their product(s). There's a lot of support out there for an online version of the very directive, pour-ideas-into-your-head model of learning that Alan mentions, because that can be packaged and marketed. An interaction-centered model that depends on the active ongoing participation of an experienced professor -- what I suspect we all would consider the preferable one -- is not marketable (and may also be harder to assess, because the students are supposed -- oh, horror! -- to figure some things out for themselves, and learn in the process).

The sound-bite version of the difference is, I think, that textbooks, even multi-media mildly interactive ones, are not courses.

Alan said...

Wow. The resignation is really depressing to see.

"So now it is a matter of making sure it is as good as possible (while also defending the in person classes where they exist)."

But what if one believes that a two-tier educational system is inherently unethical? I honestly don't see how "as good as possible" is even possible.

It doesn't even matter if there is actually no difference in quality, there only needs to be the perception of difference in quality. I can't be the only person who points and laughs at the commercial on TV with the woman who got a PhD from Phoenix University. So, if I'm on a hiring committee and two otherwise equally-qualified students get degrees, one from an online university and another from a brick-and-mortar school, I already know exactly who I would pick for a job. I doubt I would even vote to give the online university student an interview. In fact, this discussion makes it clear that we should put a question about the amount of online learning a student had even if they graduated from a brick-and-mortar school.

Not to mention the whole thing is just cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Given the public's already low estimation of teaching as a profession, I can only imagine how much lower it will continue to fall when we admit to them that we actually think our jobs can be done without us even showing up.

Anonymous said...

"Given what my students show up wearing in my actual class, though, I am left wondering if that is a real difference."

True enough. I've had students show up to class wearing pyjamas. And no, it wasn't Pyjama Day or anything like that.

I haven't yet taught an online course, and I too wonder how you would prevent cheating. You wouldn't have any way to know who exactly was taking participating and doing the assignments (the same person who registered? more than one person?). There's enough of that sort of problem in actual classes. I also wonder about the quality of the course, and the instructor would go about engaging the students. As with being a good teacher in the classroom, I suspect that it would take a fair amount of practice to be good at online teaching.

But hey---I can afford to speculate about whether online courses are as good as IRT courses or not. Lots of people aren't so lucky. A good friend of mine had health problems, an abusive marriage and heavy family responsibilities, and was only able to finish her BA because she could take some of the courses online. If it hadn't been for that BA, she wouldn't have been able to finally better her situation, and get the job that she now has.

Anonyma to the north

Anonymous said...

Hudson Mills to Delhi? Or Delhi downstream?

david lancer said...

Yes, online learning is the best option who want to study with job. Sitting at home, we can take part in online degree programs and can make our future more secure. One last characteristic of a good online school is that it provides easy access to course material and instructors.

tornwordo said...

I teach in kind of a hybrid environment - for business communication anyway. Some students honestly don't need a prof, their self study skills and motivation and level of intelligence make a prof unnecessary. However, for language learning, there's no other way than practicing with living beings. Can I just put all my stuff up online and get paid the same? That would be fun.

Roger Owen Green said...

OFF TOPIC, but very Gay Prof.

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