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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- Millennials Believe The Future Of Education Will Be Virtual
- Texas Poised to Expand Virtual Education Through Online Network
- Georgia Tech Teams Up With Udacity, AT&T To Offer $6K Master’s Degree In Computer Science, Entirely Online
- MOOCs being embraced by top U.S. universities
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?
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?