Why today is my last day teaching online…

I just submitted final grades for the last time. This means that today marks my last day teaching online. :(

For the past 3+ years, I’ve been an online adjunct faculty member at a university here in the US – teaching undergraduate courses in critical and creative thinking, along with a fair bit of writing and logical reasoning.

Online Education

But, I just can’t shake the feeling that my students would have been much better served in a more traditional face-to-face setting. So, sadly, I know that it is now time for me to put down my grading mouse and walk away from the keyboard.

To be fair, I’m confident that all students did learn something in the classes I have taught, but that doesn’t mean I should call the courses a success.

Let’s walk through many of the reasons for why I feel that education, including MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online distance learning, is travelling down a dangerously slippery slope.

Quick Summary

  • The measures of success are often wrong – learning experiences are far more important than a checklist of standards and objectives
  • Relationships, connections, and networking are minimized in the rushed online world
  • Differentiation and personalized learning is lost in the pre-created curricula and assembly line experience of most distance courses and MOOCs
  • Motivation and engagement suffer through isolation – we’re seriously becoming ok with virtual science labs!?
  • The subject matter (and the learners’ needs) should drive instructional strategies, not technology

If you agree or disagree with any of these, please read on for more and add your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclaimer

Please understand that the purpose here is to spark a discussion around the current trends in education and hopefully provide a gut check to us all on our priorities and practices. I’ve been an online educator, earned a masters degree almost exclusively online, have happily participated in several MOOCs, and hold two certifications in online teaching – one for K-12 virtual schools in Texas and another for the university I have worked for.

In short, I’m as guilty as anyone and I’ve been riding the online education wave for years. In that time, I have met, taught, and worked with tons of excellent educators and students. This isn’t a commentary on people – but rather the direction we are all collectively heading.

Who are we talking about?

If you keep up at all with mainstream tech blogs and news media, they’re regularly filled with posts about new funding for “edtech” startups and new partnerships between for profit companies and public universities.

For example, here’s a quick look through my feed reader recently:

There is way less in the media on the drawbacks of all this online learning, with the notable exception of last week’s announcement by San Jose State to suspend MOOCs on Udacity after low passing rates.

But even this negative attention may have been a bit overboard and misleading after reading this joint blog post by the Provost and President of San Jose State University.

(As an aside and part disclosure, San Jose State is an Edublogs Campus customer and the link above is to a blog we host.) 

Is it all bad?

MOOCs for professional development, online learning for self-help, and courses for personal enrichment are all totally different stories.

There’s no question that access to quality content online is a significant improvement for those in rural or developing areas around the globe.

Online education is also crucial to working adults supporting families, and provides learning opportunities to many that never before would would have the ability to attend traditional schools.

And a handful of online courses in a university degree program may be appropriate, depending on the content of the courses.

But while there is a time and place for online education, the direction we’re taking should still scare every educator and employer out there. Especially with increasing numbers of fully online K-12 programs.

Are students really motivated by online learning?

Got motivation question

When I began thinking about online courses, especially large ones with a lot of students and MOOCs, I thought about the large “traditional” classes I had freshman year at the University of Texas.

I remember walking into my first university course ever, and taking a seat among at least 500 other students in an intro to Chemistry course. There were more students in this one “classroom” than in my entire high school graduating class. We’d watch what the professor wrote on a piece of paper projected on one of two big screens. And we would listen to what he said over a microphone. I really couldn’t even see him, so I might as well have just watched a video of the lecture.

These large lecture courses are popular at bigger universities – and it is fair to say the learning experiences are similar to those in online MOOCs. Nobody knew my name. I certainly can’t tell you my professor’s name or anything about him or other students in the course – or anything at all that I “learned” about Chemistry.

Anecdotally, for me, these courses were the opposite of motivating and engaging.  And as the semester went on, you’d find more and more empty seats.

Perhaps this partly explains this recent meta-analysis of 29 courses found that completion rates were less than 7 percent! Students lose interest, aren’t motivated to complete course work, and simply stop coming.

I’d argue that relationships are motivating. Seeing the passion good instructors bring to a classroom live and in person is motivating. Being in a classroom without distractions for an hour at a time to only think about the subject matter at hand is motivating.

Greater than or equal to traditional learning?

This seems to be the underlying thesis for many – virtual learning and MOOCs can replicate (and even improve upon) traditional classroom settings more efficiently and more economically.

Or so they say.

Well, the only way to compare would be to have some sort of standardized or summative assessment at the end of 2 courses that cover the same material.

But this would be making a false assumption that many politicians and business leaders seem to constantly make:

Learning experiences are far more important than learning outcomes.

If you leave this blog post with only one takeaway, I sincerely hope it is this. Our education culture thrives on test scores and completion rates. We ignore the learning process, the challenges students face, the products they produce, and the experiences they have.

While there are ways to include collaboration, projects, and non-lecture based instruction in online courses, so much of what we see revolves around video lectures and reading of texts.

This type of teaching will work for some students, but I’d argue these same students would learn just as well (or even better) in traditional classrooms.

When we can harness technology to reach and engage students that haven’t historically done well in traditional classrooms, then we truly will have arrived in a technology revolution in education.

How’s teaching online different than face to face?

For me, the difference is night and day.

My face to face experiences have been more rewarding personally and professionally – perhaps because I got to know my students better and was better able to pass on my enthusiasm for course content. I’m the first to admit that there are better online instructors than me, and perhaps I’m just not as cut out for it.

That being said, typically the lessons and activities are all pre-set before an online course begins. It is next to impossible to really deviate no matter how students are achieving.

In a traditional course, through fluid conversations and other means of instant feedback, instructors can change plans right in the middle of a lesson if the class needs more time on a concept than expected.

My experience, and fear, is that online classes are too rigid, too much like a factory, and less responsive to individual students’ learning.

So what’s the solution?

I’m glad you asked.

We’re particularly excited at Edublogs by the increase in more “blended” learning environments. Essentially the best of both worlds – face-to-face time along with a web or virtual component. And we think blogs and new products and features we have up our sleeves can be major players in improving blended learning experiences.

Along with blended learning programs comes a re-evaluation of the content in courses we teach in this technology age. For example, we’ll see more and more trading in of memorization of facts and processes for problem solving, communication skills, and a focus on critical thinking. After-all, we have entire libraries and encyclopedias in our pockets for all those facts.

But, there are other arguments that can be made, and again, the purpose of this post is to start a discussion.

So leave a comment below, or even better, write your own blog post and share a link with your own ideas about online education and MOOCs. Are they here to stay?

Ronnie Burt

Works for Edublogs. Former secondary math teacher and wannabe musician. Follow me on twitter @ronnieburt!

49 Responses

  1. Valerie Lees says:

    A very thorough and thoughtful post. I agree that relationships and experiences, positive or negative, offer the richer learning. Blended learning experiences seem to be the best way to personalize and differentiate but under a high-stakes test driven atmosphere, it must be challenging for schools to embrace the flexibility of blended learning. Feeling fortunate that while we have standardized tests, we don’t have as many as in the US or the high stakes attached to them. Enjoyed reading this and will pass it on. Thank you.

  2. Tim Williams says:

    The student experience and the student outcome are not mutually exclusive. I’d argue in fact, that the student experience contributes significantly to his or her outcome. Concerning distance learning, the key, just as in any educational endeavor, lies within the reciprocating teacher-student relationship. The anonymity resultant from online instruction discourages biases and encourages instructors to approach their teaching responsibilities with the same expectations relative to learning and achievement for all students. What online learning lacks in traditional face to face communication, it makes up for in costs, accessibility, adaptability, and cultural relevance. It is the last feature mentioned however, points to my skepticism concerning distance learning in K-12.

  3. Chris Hale says:

    This is an insightful posting which highlights man if the concerns I have regarding online learning. I encounter too man students who think an e-course will be right for them because they like to be online. Unfortunately, being online does not equate with focused and structured use of that medium. Thank you for sharing your experiences, concerns, and considerations of online learning.

    • Keith Brennan says:

      There’s a depressing, and useful piece of research by Clark and Mayer, I think, that concluded that students, when given the choice between an online course, and a textbook based one, tried less hard.

      The supposed reason was, the students chose the course they thought they would find easier, and, so, tried less hard. (The ones who thought the textbook one was easier, and the ones who thought the online was easier both chopse theose, and tried less hard).

      There’s some evidence to indicate that, in online courses, this effect is often present. People will try harder at courses where they think the course, or the medium they are studying through, is harder for them, and will try less hard where they feel the course or medium is easier. And the impression, for many, is that online learning is going to be easier.

      As you say, choice does not equate focus.

  4. Jeannine says:

    Ronnie, thank you for stating clearly and succinctly my concerns re online learning courses. I too have taught online, often at the same time I was teaching the same unit to face face classes. The quality of the interactions and relationships were significantly better in f2f classes and I was able to assist students who were struggling to improve. This was not happening with the online classes as the struggling students often did not engage online. Other issues with online classes were rampant plagiarism; students who did not engage with content yet completed assignments and still expected to pass, and complained vociferously when they did not; and an ‘Ive paid for this so I expect lecturers to be online 24/7 ‘ mentality. I also have little faith in developing teachers of children with good morals, resilience and pedagogy without ever getting to know those people personally. Purely content based units (geology?) may be delivered successfully online, but I think the humanities should shy away from online learning. That said, I think my biggest achievement was creating and delivering an online unit about speaking and listening in primary schools!

  5. @moodlemuse says:

    Great article. Congratulations on a new phase in your career. For the last few years I have worked in a blended delivery classroom 1-2 days a week, and develop eLearning Resources and Moodle Site admin the rest of the week. I agree whole heartedly with your observations about technology being restrictive when too much planning and commitment to scheduled content overrides what an observant teacher naturally does in a face to face setting.

    I am often explaining that my use of technology – as a bunch of tools I use or put away as I need them – is the best of both worlds – orchestrated by me to meet the learning needs of the group on the day.

  6. Alice Keeler says:

    This is right on. I have long been frustrated by online education where the focus is on doing it cheap. If putting text online and having students read it or watch a video was so great then why are the face to face teachers not just telling the kids to “read the book” and come over to the teachers desk if they have a question. Teaching requires constant improvement, oftentimes the curriculum for online is pre-made and doesn’t change much. How do you flex and adjust for needs and interests. I think every single face to face class I have ends up going not exactly as I planned since the students bring an element to the class that is a wild card. They may ask a question that helps me to realize that we need to spend more time on a previous concept, or to take a left turn and explore something I had not planned on talking about but was infinitely valuable. I’ve taught online, I’ve taken classes online. I’ve had some excellent online courses, but mostly bad. The best line from this article is “I’d argue that relationships are motivating.” If we are not building community, if we are not bringing the best elements of face to face to the online environment then this is not better education.

    • Geonz says:

      “. If putting text online and having students read it or watch a video was so great then why are the face to face teachers not just telling the kids to “read the book” and come over to the teachers desk if they have a question.”
      +1!!!!!

      Tho’ right now I am taking a MOOC that is really good (Jo BOaler’s “How to Learn Math”)… I suspect it not at all cheap.

  7. Mel Buendia says:

    This is a great article. I really enjoyed reading your point of view, and I agree with you that a blended learning maybe is the best alternative we have. I have taken online certifications, courses, etc and I would really like to become an online teacher sometime, just to know what it is like….but I think the f2f experience is what really motivates us as teachers, the contact with students, their doubts, reactions, interests is what challenges you as a teacher to create, to inspire them, to change a lesson immediately…and in my case, the contact with real people in real time is what made me become a teacher.
    Thanks!
    Mel

  8. Janie Sullivan says:

    Thanks for this post. I am a confirmed online teacher, passionate about my work and my students. I also believe that teaching online can be rewarding for both student and teacher, but it is not an easy, or cheap process. To be fair, I did teach for a couple of the big online universities, and even developed the curriculum for a 22-course certificate in Online Teaching Strategies for a local community college. I agree that the ‘canned’ curriculum can be abused, however I do think that using a template to develop the curriculum for consistency is important.

    I don’t teach for the university or community college anymore. I run my own writer’s website, and I offer online courses (that I developed myself) through my website. I wrote a book on Developing and Delivering an Online class, which includes a template I developed after years of teaching online in different venues. I took what I considered to be the best elements of other processes, added in some ideas of my own and came up with the template. It does include outcomes and competencies to be learned along with assessments. No tests. Testing does not (in my opinion) show learning.

    I connect with my online students so much better than I ever did with my face-to-face students. I hold robust discussions all week long in the online class, and students are engaged in the learning process daily. In the traditional classes I saw my students once or twice a week for an hour or so at a time. The interaction in a 30-student class is simply not the same as in a 2-5 student online class. Yes, I keep my classes small so I can interact with them individually more often.

    • Terry says:

      The key to the success of your online classes are that they are small. Since most colleges are using on-line classes to save money, they want the classes to be bigger, not smaller. They want fewer teachers to teach more students. A combination of large classes with no f2f interaction means that most typical college students will not stay engaged.

    • Megan A says:

      Janie, I think you hit the nail on the head. I just stated that I have been surprised by how much I enjoy teaching online – not because it’s easy, but because I see it as an opportunity to impact students. Fortunately, I teach in an environment that encourages feedback and allows instructors to adjust certain aspects of the course as we go along. I do find that compared to on-site teaching, online instruction requires as much – if not more! – time to plan lessons, interact with students, and provide proper evaluation. It is difficult yet rewarding, and I enjoy helping students along a journey to learn in a new way.

  9. dogtrax says:

    I suspect that, like everything, finding some balance is the key component to online learning spaces. One one hand, they offer access to people who never had such access before. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, they create a wall between the learners and the learners and the instructor. That’s not a good thing. I’ve been a facilitator in the Making Learning Connected MOOC this summer (http://blog.nwp.org/clmooc/) which offers no grading, only self-directed learning. Sure, it does not have accreditation but the depth of learning, sharing and collaboration has been staggering. I worry that more profit companies enter the online learning spaces, the more homogenized it gets, and the less likely it is that folks will really learn something that sticks forever or plants the seeds of an idea. That’s because money is driving the space, not learning.
    Kevin

  10. S. Leigh Nataro says:

    I am currently taking a Stanford MOOC on “How to Learn Math”. I was initially excited, but find that I am missing the give and take that happens in a face-to-face, or even threaded, discussion. People post, but don’t reply to other posts. Reading what people write is like reading over 100 different opinions on the topic – there is no logical flow of ideas. Peer feedback is very limited. It is mostly yes you answered the question or no you didn’t. Of course I know if I answered the question that was asked. So…essentially there is no feedback. I have done the first 4 sessions of the course in less than a week. (It is recommended to do 2 per week at 1-2 hours per session.)

    Contrast this with an online course I took on how to teach math using a specific technology. The class was smaller (I am guessing 20 or so people) and we helped each other on the discussion boards. When we got stuck, we asked other people for ideas. Not as good as asking a person face to face, but the discussion boards were actually a discussion. You could post a question and know help would arrive in the form of an answer. As a result of this course, I use the technology regularly with my students and post sceencasts of demos using it.

    So…MOOCs are no better than large lecture classrooms and potentially worse. But small online classes can be just as good as face to face classes, in my opinion.

  11. Clark Roush, Ph.D. says:

    BRAVO! We are falling all over ourselves trying to keep up with something without ever asking if it’s something we should keep up with or not. Online is about convenience and money, but rarely about true quality education. I fear we are rushing down a side street, and by the time we get to the “dead end” sign, we won’t know our way back. This country is being eaten alive by money and greed – sadly education seems to be playing right along.

  12. Keith Brennan says:

    I think many MOOCs, and aspects of the technology led pedagogical revolution we are currently undergoing are making numerous, avoidable mistakes.

    And educator I hugely respect once whispered to me in a class, that he taught the student and not the subject, and, I think, that’s an aspect of what you are trying to capture here.

    I think that degree of personalisation of instruction, engagement, and collaboration is key to may learning experiences, and is one that Massive Courses are failing to incorporate.

    Design a one size fits all experience for multitudes, and you can be almost certain that your hit rate will be low. Multitudes are renowned for their lack of uniformity. Classes of twenty are renowned for their lack of uniformity. There is no one size fits all mass of individuals.

    Instructors are key. Who they are, how they are viewed, and the experience landscapes they forge for their students are all hugely determing factors in the ultimate outcomes, and the value of the process.

    Technology can extend the degree to which we can experienced an informed empathy for our students. This is essential to many aspects of the educational experience.

    At presnt, technology seems to be transplanting us back to older eras, rather than catapulting us forward into newer ones. MOOCs (MIT and Udacity I’m looking at you…),and tech startups (Hi Khan Academy…) are, at times nothing more than a straight to video form of instruction rather than the summer blockbuster experience we are led to expect.

    There’s no reason for this to be the case. The lessons to avoid it have already been learned. We already have the knowledge, experience and evidence based corpus to avoid the pitfalls.

  13. Airlie Pelletier says:

    Nice article!
    Education is always a positive thing, but I think it’s really all about where you are in life [mentally and physically]. Everybody’s different, but for me it worked well like this- I gained interest for my subject area while attending university, but lacked the passion and self-motivation that is necessary for online education. I enjoyed the exploration of university, shared experiences, talked with many professors and met many life-long friends.
    Five years later, I needed another degree to be promoted, so I enrolled in online courses; I took the habits I learned for studying and time management in university and applied them.
    With a full-time job and a child it was the best choice for me to move forward in my career. Online education is not for everyone, but [for me] has proven itself to be a valid and enriching experience.

  14. Robert McGuire says:

    Ronnie, it’s such a nice change to see a critical look at MOOCs and other online learning that doesn’t take an absolute stand and that recognizes a potential value to them alongside their apparent deficiencies. It’s important to hold all forms of online learning to high standards while remaining open to them.

  15. Lisa M Lane says:

    I understand, but I confess it makes me sad that online classes in general not get conflated with MOOCs, and that MOOCs in general now get conflated with mass-production xMOOCs.

    I teach online, my own classes, at a community college. I’ve done it for years, I love it, I research it, I change things, I spend much time removing the distance you see and creating the community and communication you admire. Maybe I just *am* cut out for it.

    I think it’s great if you’ve discovered you don’t like it – I wish students who weren’t cut out for it would also come back to campus. Since that’s not going to happen, it’s even more important that teachers who do love teaching online, and whose love shows in their work, keep doing it and doing it well.

    • Lisa M Lane says:

      * typo – first sentence should read “…I confess it makes me sad that online classes in general *now* get conflated with MOOCs…”

  16. Heather Erin Herbert says:

    As a fully online student, I have to agree with many of the points you have made. Online learning is incredibly lonely. It is very difficult to maintain the motivation required to keep plugging away, especially without the social engagement that is normally concurrent with the educational process. I have seen (and reported) countless incidents of plagiarism. I’ve received entreaties from fellow students who wanted to “borrow” my reports, my lab results, my answers, my exams, my papers, or who simply wanted me to log in and do the work for them.

    However, along the way, something wonderful happened to me.

    It was the professors. People like all of you. Professors who cared enough to reach out to the (obviously lonely) student. Professors who started making opportunities available to me.

    Because of wonderful professors like yourselves, a middle-aged mother of three has not only picked up two AAs and an AS (all Summa Cum Laude) but will also end this year with a BA in English, and a double minor. I’ll be taking the GRE in two months as well, so that I may apply to grad school.

    I live in an educationally underserviced area, and online education allows me to parent my three children, learn, and now work online for the same college. It has made my dreams come true.

    To all of you teaching online, you are making a difference. For some of us, it is profound.

    Thank you for teaching us.

    Thank you for teaching me.

    • Mary Alice says:

      As an educator embarking on creating and teaching my first ever online courses, I am inspired by your post!

      To enroll in my courses, 85 students completed Online Learner Readiness Surveys to apply for the 14 available spaces. I had the luxury of reviewing each survey and deciding on the cohort. I was overwhelmed by the number of students for whom online was their only available access. Many of them also had a track record of successful completion of online courses. Others had life responsibilities that precluded coming to campus each week but conveyed their commitment to continuing their education through to completion.
      I suppose this is the direct opposite of massive and open, and were there more faculty at my university willing to teach online we could serve more students. But online learning is not for every learner and not for every teacher. I appreciate that I have the opportunity to be selective and create a community of learners with students who not only desire this format, they need it.

      • Christine says:

        Hello Mary Alice,
        I really like the idea of using a student online readiness survey at the beginning of the course. I give my students a follow-up survey at the end of the semester but think the readiness survey would help me to identify at-risk students who may not be suited to this type of learning environment. Would you mind sharing your survey? Thanks.

  17. regant says:

    well done Ronnie – and you are not alone in your movement toward belnded delivery from only online. I have said something similar recently in my post http://theedublogger.com/2013/07/23/moocs-and-online-teaching/

  18. regant says:

    and hence the discussion on quality Vs cost for training

  19. HJB says:

    This was an article that I believe many educators should read. It was very insightful and I feel personally that it makes us stop and think about were our values as educators have gone. Again it is my own personal opinion, but I feel that online classes for our youth are for a means of convenience, and away for the government to save a penny. Academically,they could very well be learning something. However, taking away the personal connection that you have with a teacher and the peers in the class with you is not teaching students how to become productive citizens in our community. It is not teaching them how to effectively work in a group or to how to have conflict resolution. So to me we are sending these kids out into the real world that doesn’t work this way. I am an educator myself and I know one of things that I value the most is my connection and bond that I develop with my students. I believe that online classes cause a disconnection between the teacher and their students and that this causes the students to not get the education that they so desperately need and deserve.

  20. Anouk Janssens-Bevernage says:

    Love your honesty Ronnie – thanks for sharing.

    You write: “Our education culture thrives on test scores and completion rates. We ignore the learning process, the challenges students face, the products they produce, and the experiences they have. While there are ways to include collaboration, projects, and non-lecture based instruction in online courses, so much of what we see revolves around video lectures and reading of texts.”

    I cannot agree more. It’s a pity that excellent online facilitators stop tutoring online because they are demotivated by the environment they work in and the way this defines the relationships in this space. But how about changing the environment?

    Considering the learning outcomes and workplaces in which the learned skills are applied, many online learning courses should be designed according to social contructivist principles (or at least according to adult learning principles), yet the vast majority of online learners and online learning designers have never experienced these. Collaborative problem-based learning design would solve part of the problems which are prevalent in the MOOCs, yet I’ve never seen these learning design methods being applied there.

    Apart from a test-driven culture (granted more in the US than in other Western countries), there is a serious problem with learning design (I know in the US it’s “instructional” design, but I avoid to use that term) in the vast majority of online courses. It demotivates the online facilitators and the learners.

    Online learning design has an important role to play in bringing back the “buzz”, collaboration and true learner support that many value so much in face-to-face learning events. We’re not solving the problem by introducing “blended” learning instead. Typically the design of the online part remains sub-standard and uninspiring. In many instances it also reduces the accessibility of your course. I believe it isn’t solving the essence of the problem.

    Best wishes,
    Anouk Janssens-Bevernage

  21. Jenn says:

    I TOTALLY agree. I’ve been teaching online courses for over 5 years now. I know that my students get more out of my face to face classes than they do online. While I use Blackboard heavily in my F2F classes now, I don’t think there’s any substitute for the accountability that comes with a professor knowing who you are. Students are more likely to finish the course, attend classes, and generally do better when they’ve got to face their professor. Maybe that’s because guilt is an effective, if not necessarily good, motivator. Whatever the reason, the attrition and drop rates are significantly lower than my online courses.

    I’ve said for years that not every subject or course should be taught online. This medium is good for upper level students (who’ve already learned how to manage a course load) who are taking classes that focus heavily on reading and writing.

    However, I keep doing it cause that’s what people with massive student loan debt do… sell their souls. I also keep looking for ways to improve the experience and the outcomes for my online students.

  22. Miguel says:

    Why trainers adapt better to online classes, while teachers (teachers=missionaries, first, for learning; are facilitators, agents of content, second), sometimes do not. The functional reality is that the neuropsychology modality of the thirteen year old will now extend, via culturally normalized will-to-power drive for the quick and shallow, the entertaining, the swipe and summarize of internet BEING metaphysics, until the age of 25 or beyond. In a nutshell: A major portion of the online class audience that is not choosing online because of distance/ convenience reasons, ‘thinks’ they want (are sated by) a ‘quickie,’ not wanting a relationship with learning because online is not ‘commital’ medium. They think value is in twenty quick click sound bites and narcissistic reflection upon them, rather than thinking/rereading/reprocessing deeper for more than 5 minutes. Statistically, your love of critical thinking and deep books and lesson plan won’t matter one single attention span to the standard-issue bulk of online students. Teacher needs to either demoralize and deinvest in the presumed superior value of patience-requiring learning experiences (a trainer by definition does this/ unacceptable to a real ‘teacher’) when teaching online, or needs to learn how to subvert and disrupt, cleanse-fold-and-manipulate the medium, the audience & attention span, to lure to the apple with caramel coatings and familiar, colloquial, sugary flavors, at first bite (in non-prose: lose the expectation that online students come to learn without losing faith that they do, and then ‘trick’ them into depth-commitment, into valuing the learning not just the end product, via gimmicks, manipulation, and social engineering type bait and switch). It’s educational Kali Yuga time, if you fear this change of new online student generations weened on the internet’s teat; but is it collapsing architectures, NO, NOT REALLY — just change, need to teacher-adapt from techniques of the ancestry of the illuminated manuscript to the strategies that reach the progeny of the illuminated screen.

  23. Jenni Hayman says:

    Thank you for your deeply thoughtful reflection on your experiences, and your description of why you are choosing to abandon fully online teaching (for now). I can imagine you are discouraged. Many of the reasons you cited for your disappointment are institutional, and therefore preventable, if institutions cared to prevent them. There are so many complex facets to the successful education of humans, in both K-12 and higher education contexts.

    As a parent, and a pedagog I am completely against any type of online learning, as a substitute for a live teacher in K-10. There may be some engaging and preparatory blended work that could be successful in grades 11 and 12. Such work might contribute to more self-directed, and independent students graduating from high school with digital literacy skills related to education (rather than just their social technology needs).

    In a higher education context, we cannot, must not, ignore the barriers to access that are very real, learner by learner, state by state. I might recommend lower cost online learning, to cover off the boot camp large first year classes, blended learning in classes with more complex cognitive domains, and finally upper core and electives, face-to-face.

    In every scenario in which online education elements take place, there need to be four non-negotiable items, exceptional pedagogic design, alternatives for struggling students, well-designed online learning orientations for all students, and top drawer professional development for all instructors.

    In most fully online programs, 3 out of 4 of these elements are missing, if we’re lucky. Why? Funding, that’s why.

    Effective online learning is not scalable to tens of thousands in one course, we know that. Learning can take place, but it is in no way, not ever, an equivalent to a small or medium face-to-face teaching experience. Any learning that takes place in a MOOC rests entirely with the capabilities and motivation of the learner, full stop. MOOCs are not the same as tuition-based, small scale online learning either, there’s absolutely no comparison, nor should they be lumped into the same category, especially by an experienced online instructor.

    I agree with you Ronnie, I definitely do not like where auto-bot, technology analyzed, standardized information, black and white assessed learning is heading, terrifying quite frankly.

    But I will continue to stand up for the global capacity that fully online learning represents, even MOOCs represent, as key pieces of the education puzzle. Online options may assist some learners to move forward in their quest for improved problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity that will enable them to find a livelihood they enjoy. It’s not the full solution, but part of it. I’ll repeat the caveat, only when it is well-designed, learner-focused and the instructors are satisfied with the teaching process.

  24. Vanessa Vaile says:

    Did this article appear first in Adjunct Nation? I tracked it down from a blogroll link posted as, http://www.adjunctnation.com/2013/07/25/stepping-out-of-the-distance-ed-classroom-because-online-classes-are-too-rigid-too-much-like-a-factory/

  25. blominator says:

    Hi Ronnie. Thank you for the post. I have also been an online teacher, and I have to be honest: despite teaching for a great organization, I got the same feedback from each group of students I taught.

    “The measures of success are often wrong – learning experiences are far more important than a checklist of standards and objectives” – interestingly, my organization (intentionally or unintentionally) encouraged us as teachers to try to give the students a great learning experience.

    “Relationships, connections, and networking are minimized in the rushed online world” – I have encouraged students to get in contact with each other via social media, but online relationships are not the same as face-to-face relationships. I would say 80% of my students saw this as a negative characteristic of online education.

    “Differentiation and personalized learning is lost in the pre-created curricula and assembly line experience of most distance courses and MOOCs” – I fully agree. There were times where I knew the content had to be adjusted for students. Now I have to say that the online teacher can create individualized experiences for students in an online course, but it takes an incredible amount of time – much more than responding to a student’s individual needs in a face-to-face situation.

    “Motivation and engagement suffer through isolation – we’re seriously becoming ok with virtual science labs!?” – this is the number one complaint of all of my students. The online learning environment is not a representation of most of our students’ day-to-day life experiences. In fact, the (high school) students who have tried a fully online education have found it so stressful and isolating that every single one have left it after a while hoping that they never have to complete any more of the high school education online again.

    “The subject matter (and the learners’ needs) should drive instructional strategies, not technology” – great observation, and I think a “fatal blow” to the idea of fully online education.

    Now, I am a big proponent of blended learning, and I do think that it is the best pedagogical use of the workflow improvements online learning brings to the table.

    To lifelong learning!

  26. lisalain says:

    Hmmm…I think that as academics, we often can get seduced by the claims of distance ed…We can teach in our pajamas! We can lecture from the beach! We have a super captive audience of hundreds all around the world hanging on our every word!

    Though in theory all of these ideas are true (and I’ve tested the first two…many, many times over) in practice it’s a lonely place and I’d speculate, actually a lot less glamorous than teaching with a bricks and mortar university or college. Sure you can lecture from anywhere and you’re not tied to a physical space, but you also lack a sense of rootedness and a community in which to share the quirky struggles and water cooler banter that comes with traditional academic life. No one on the beach cares about the insane email you just got about why your students work is going to be late yet again.) And, the same goes for the students. They have the ability to “get their degree at their own pace and in their own space” and yet they never chance run into their profs while eating lunch or while shopping at the grocery store and they certainly never see their profs as 3D people, engaged in all the trials and triumphs of life.

    In short, the advances in distance learning have allowed everyone to access an almost totally pure stream of education and information and yet like trying to breathe pure oxygen, that stream of information is too much for our finite bodies to handle and process. And so the students disengage. And so the pressures of the “real” trump the responsibilities of the virtual+academic. And so classes, which never seemed so real to begin with begin to fade and students drop out and distance ed drops another percentage point in the polls. In turn, instructors get frustrated and lacking any real sense of connection to either their students or their admin leave as well and return to the places where they actually have to wear pants and are once more subject to the constraints of a physical location. And honestly, who can really blame them?

    So…what do I as a grad with a distance ed MFA, an Associate Dean in an online college title, and an EdD candidate in Distance Education think about all of this? Good question.

    I think that distance ed, with MOOCs and asynchronous learning and for-profit schools, is being put through its paces in a major way and the next 3 to 5 years are going to be very very interesting to watch because they very well might be make or break years. Honestly, I think that the MOOC system is unsustainable and I think that even asynchronous learning (and any other sort of learning-at-your-own-pace system) is destined for failure because it’s just not in the wheelhouse of what it means to be human…we just don’t learn in a vacuum and we don’t learn in a totally closed and isolated environment. We can learn small things and rote facts but without the support of a like-minded community and a couple strong mentors, what we learn is just head knowledge…recite it and perform it but it doesn’t change and challenge us deep inside.

    I also think that as an Associate Dean in a program that has allowed me a fairly phenomenal level of autonomy and requires 4 hours of synchronous lecture per week, I’ve been unexpectedly blessed. My students are all “real people” to me even though they live scattered across four time zones because in my school the students are required to check in with me even as I am required to maintain consistent two-way contact with them. In my doctoral work, I am part of a tight-knit cohort and though I’m not even in the same country as many of my classmates, we are all bound by the consistency of weekly (or even daily) communication.

    In conclusion…I don’t think distance education will save the world, or redeem overcrowded campuses or allow every person with an internet connection to gain their PhD. I think it’s a great dream and a compelling vision but I think in the end, people are people and where distance education will succeed is when the structure of the program itself honors what it means to be human. When the structure of the program seeks to be the magic bullet, thrusting into a sphere that is yet “unreached” or “undiscovered” it’s going to shine bright but then fizzle out, and for good reason. Can distance ed survive? I’m willing to bank the next 5 years of my life on a solid yes. : ) But…only if it happens on a human level that emphasizes transformational relationships over mere content regurgitation. The distance ed that emerges will be more long-distance relationship than YouTube tutorial, and I for one and happy to get through the growing pangs to see that reality come to pass.

  27. Sonja Franeta says:

    I really appreciated your article and the way you stressed opening up the discussion. I haven’t read all the comments yet. I myself am moving in this direction of more online teaching. I have only done blended learning myself (hybrid courses) but I have taken online courses which I think can be very exciting and excellent learning experiences–basically what the student puts into it. However, like most internet work, I feel that it lacks depth. Maybe that depth is the combination actual face-to-face contact and “learning experiences.” More written, visual and oral productions would help. In any case it is worth thinking about and discussing these ideas.

  28. Jenny Tyler says:

    I agree with a few of the posters above, it depends HOW you do it (I’m talking about online tutoring here).

    If you prepare well, you can minimise any losses in interaction, and I think that it’s certainly a case of, ‘are you cut out for this?’. Some are, some are not.

    I’m an online tutor on http://www.chalksy.com, and I feel that it works best when teaching a language online.

    Thanks!

  29. Toni Sulkowski says:

    I read your post with a great deal of interest because I currently teach(adjunct) a blended course and am finding success at that. However, my online portion is conducted 50% in real time using Blackboard’s Collaborate. At least the students and I can interact live through chats, in video and auditory. That has helped to bridge that gap that occurs when you do strictly everything offline. Never-the-less as a 35 year teacher/principal/tech director veteran of the public schools, I empathize with your concerns, but in reality, depending upon the teacher, if they are subject or teacher centric, then the same thing happens in the face-to-face environment. We become educators because of the people connections, thus I believe that online learning for us is more difficult, because it does not meet our expectations for being able to care for our students beyond the subject matter.

  30. Paula says:

    Nicely written article.
    I think everyone comes to the table with different backgrounds and preconceived ideas about traditional vs online learning because of their personal experiences. Motivation of the student is KEY. I wasn’t particularly motivated right out of High school – and my grades showed that. Incomplete and dropped classes, etc. After marriage, I spent 18 years raising kids before I returned to school at 46. I have since had traditional classes that were fabulous with lots of discussion – like my JC Eng Comp/critical thinking and ones that were painful – like a intro physics that the professor made blatant mistakes – and I left each day with a migraine, or a Masters class in Curriculum that had us with 1/2 hour of useful instruction, 1/2 hour of useful discourse, and 2-3 hours of “what are we supposed to do now?” as the professor circulated the classroom, and always got to our group last after all other students had left, or the Science Curriculum teacher that read the PPT’s to us. I have had mixed courses I loved. 1 day was at school, 1 was online – reading and responding to other’s comments (which, by the way, I learned FAR more student’s names in that class – you saw their name every time they posted)- or less face to face – only 1 initial meeting, 1 in-class test – everything else was read from a book or online – And I think I learned a lot in those classes – but then again, as a returning adult learner – I was highly motivated to actually LEARN the content – not just get a good grade. As I watched the “kids” (17-2?) around me disrupt or distract the class, I wished I could just learn it online, and have the professor respond to my queries – but then again – if I didn’t understand something – I asked. I was not willing to go into a test without having complete confidence that I didn’t just know the material, but I understood it. So, I would assert that the completion and passing rate of a student depends mostly on that student’s interest and motivation, somewhat on the instructor’s presentation skills/online discourse and very little on the medium in which the class is offered.
    Best of luck in your future ventures.

  31. Randy Rodgers says:

    “My experience, and fear, is that online classes are too rigid, too much like a factory, and less responsive to individual students’ learning.”

    So, instead of being a revolutionary, taking some risks, and initiating change in the system, you’re just leaving it? Interesting tactic. Your assessment is spot-on. As someone with ample personal experience as a student in online courses, I would LOVE to see someone shake things up and make it more personal and connected. Address individual needs and styles. Incorporate significant opportunities for virtual f2f conversations (video), make assignments open-ended, involve more collaboration, do SOMETHING different.

    I guess that won’t be you, though.

    • Ronnie Burt says:

      Hi Randy, thanks for the comment! I’m definitely done in online settings where I have no control and little freedom. But through work here at Edublogs and other projects, we’ll certainly be innovating and trying new things that will be different.

  32. Ronnie Burt says:

    I greatly appreciate all the comments and discussion this post has generated around the web. To be honest, I’m surprised by the majority being supportive or in agreement with most of the post. I expected quite a bit of negative feedback.

    The comments above bring out many additional important issues and shed light on promising pockets of progress. I look forward to learning more and seeing how we can improve education, not just for the sake of convenience or money.

  33. Fontanefan says:

    The more isolated you are, the more helpful is online teaching for you. But ist should be xMOOCs.
    Read more in my blogpost in German: http://fontanefanopco11.blogspot.de/2013/08/online-teaching-moocs-und-internetlernen.html

  34. Monique Liles says:

    You make a lot of good points about online learning. I personally love MOOCs because I love to learn. I have signed up for five MOOCs in the last 3 months. One of them I never attended because of a schedule change. The other four I intend to complete to refresh myself on content I will be teaching this year (I teach 6th grade Earth Science), and get a refresher on classroom management. The greatest thing about MOOCs seems to be one of the most criticized, the fact that there is no penalty for not completing the course or failing the course. People could fail a course and have learned a lot. The focus seems to be grades and “pass rates” when evaluating the usefulness of MOOCs. I am a K-12 teacher that uses a lot of technology in my own classroom. I have accounts with Udemy, Udutu, Odijoo, and many others to create online courses. The courses are differentiated for my learners, include hands-on activities, discussion and blogs, and connect learners and people with common interests across vast distances. I can create several versions of an online class with added or removed modules for different students easily and for free or with little cost. I am preparing my middle school students for life where online learning in some form is here to stay, whether it be a training or professional development class offered in the workplace, or an online university. I have also attended online universities and graduated from two online M.S. in education programs. I learned a lot, and all content was delivered via online live sessions with a professor, video lectures, and activities and papers. I attended online programs at Full Sail University and Nova Southeastern University. Peer connections and discussions were a requirement. I feel more connected to my online education peers and professors than I did in face to face brick and mortar school. I rarely knew anything about my professors or engaged with them outside of class, although I attended an excellent small liberal arts college (Spelman). Never once in high school or college did I have a professor follow me on Udemy, Facebook, or a social media or online course site. I feel like I know much more about my classmates and professors, having taken online courses. The problem is not online delivery, it is the design of the course. If the course is designed to be differentiated for learners, for example I assign projects and require students to videotape themselves or link to the project and discuss their experiences during the process, and upload it to the community, allowing them to choose how they will represent their learning. That is an easy way to differentiate learning and build community in an online course. If people are looking to fire good professors in favor of a cheap online course that is nothing more than digital worksheets and easy to assess, MOOCs are going in the wrong direction. The right direction is to support and promote in person communities of online learners. For example, I would love to see MOOC groups meeting in public forums like the Barnes & Noble coffee house to have a communal learning experience. With free MOOCs we could bring back the intellectual discourse popular in commons areas of the days of old, like the Boston Commons that helped lead to the American Revolution. Finally, my children attend an online K-12 school. My daughter is in 8th grade and my son is in 11th grade. I am not worried about the social problems facing students in school today, such as bullying and socialization interfering with learning. When it is time to socialize, my children have to work at making friends, and have friends all over the world that share their interests. They are not limited to the pool of children in their neighborhood that they may or may not gel with. All of their work is not done online. They have a state certified teacher, take state assessments with proctors, and have non-digital activities that they share via digital medium. Think about all of those YouTube science videos out there. Students in online courses can engage in more project based learning opportunities than their non-online counterparts depending on the creativity of the teacher. I hope people look at the quality of the course and develop quality online learning opportunities with a community-based, project-based component for degree programs. This is the best way to deliver a distance blended learning program.

  35. online masters in teaching says:

    Great review on the better and ugly sides of getting enrolled in an online learning school. But can you please elaborate more on this issue? Actually, I am planning in getting enrolled this month but after reading this, I think it convinced me that it would be much better enrolling on universities/schools rather than in an online education. However, Yes it really is convenient.

  36. laeticiab says:

    Very interesting article about online teaching effectiveness, opening a discussion and many insightful commentaries to all of us interested in teaching a content and reaching all learners.
    It’s true that online courses are helpful for all of those living in isolated areas or busy taking care of a family but is sometime challenging and reserved to those who are ready (academically) and determined to follow and keep working on these courses. The blended courses are more effective and I think that face to face classes are essential in education.

  37. First year online secondary science teacher says:

    I totally agree with you and I chose to leave the traditional classroom because I felt it was to much work and that online would be so much better and enable me to get a masters not only paid for by the school, but give me time to work on it. Boy was I mistaken. All my co-workers told me, “give it a chance, trust me it’ll get better, it’s like your first year teaching.” Please my first year teaching was never this bad, but I got what I wanted. I wanted to see what corporate was like (but with teacher vacation) and this is definitely the corporate side of education where you just need to produce no matter how much of your own time it takes and you need to fulfill quotes each month. I had no idea I’d be on the phone for hours on end and data entry and logging of information. I never felt a job so draining, not only mentally, but physically yet so tedious and monotonous. I wouldn’t want anyone to incur this. It’s not good health-wise because even if you work at home, you have no time to made deadlines and still be able to take breaks and relax. I’ve become so lazy with this stupid job and feel like I’m losing brain cells and putting on weight.
    Anyway, back to logging information….thanks so much for this blog and nice to know I’m not alone.

  38. John says:

    The world of online teaching has changes bigtime and it has become an electronic mess. Many people do not know that online colleges regularly spy on faculty in their classrooms. We have an article on the topic on our blog.

    http://www.onlinecollegestar.com/online-college-teachers-big-brother-watching/

    I am sorry you left teaching online but I can also understand why you did it!

  39. Darren says:

    As a teacher if secondary school mathematics here in the UK I have grown tired of the constant bearocracy that dictates every day tasks. In fact I am currently on sick leave with stress!! For 15 years I have been in this profession and I have just about burnt out. I’m not sure what it’s like in the US (I’m fairly confident that it’s the same world over) but I usually start my day in the classroom at 7am and leave at 6.45 s 7pm, when I get home I then spend time trawling the scheme of work and planning the lessons for the next day (after having spent several hours marking the books of my 210 students). Saturdays is spent entering data about behaviour, attitude to learning, progress and predicted progress!!!! So I don’t get to see my bed until 2/ 3 am on any given day. The holidays are spent going in to school to update wall displays, and file away any resources that I have not found time to do so in the week!!! Fifteen years of this has bought me to my knees. I have been told that I am a good to outstanding practitioner by HMI (Her Majesties Inspectorate) LEA (Local Education Authority) OFSTED (Office For Standards in EDucation), colleagues and my head of department…..but it is just not sustainable. I am considering a total change of direction at this point, however before I give up the ghost completely I wonder if online teaching is worth a go??

  40. Porscha says:

    I am a online instructor for middle school. I have found that this school works for some students while other students need that face to face time. I believe that if planned effectively online instruction can benefit most people that are motivated to work independently with little to no help.

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