Friday, June 4, 2010

Online Courses: Mainstreaming the Phoenix Model of Inferior Education

I have been discouraged, to say the least, about recent liberal budgetary and academic trends in higher education -- including some at Towson University -- that severely diminish comprehensive universities’ faculty and educational excellence. I may touch on others in future postings.

What follows is adapted from an article addressing just one of those trends, an article just published (with a great cartoon, parenthetically) in the The Faculty Voice. The piece is reprinted herein with the editor's permission.


-- Richard E. Vatz

Professor Helene Cohen's recent Faculty Voice article, "Online Learning's Human Dimension," with no caveats supports online classes and learning. A professor writing seriously about a major paradigmatic change in higher education for a relevant academic audience has the obligation not to write a one-sided persuasive piece, but to address the best arguments for the status quo paradigm, traditional learning, disinterestedly.

I am not an expert on the advantages of traditional learning vis-à-vis online learning, but there are several points unaddressed or inadequately addressed in the Cohen piece. I shall leave aside the serious issues of security and of cheating – devastating problems lo they be -- and I shall just focus on the educational value of the two modes of online learning and traditional learning.

Professor Cohen's article argues that "online courses are here to stay" and that they are more and more widely used. That is no doubt true, as is Professor Cohen's point that "they can actually contribute to the human dimension of learning." The fact that such classes are supported - even widely -- in the marketplace and have more than nothing to add to learning is hardly a ringing endorsement, however.

The article also argues that such classes are convenient and less expensive, all financial slam-dunks for administrative supporters of on-line courses.

On key educational values, the arguments for online courses fall woefully short. In addressing the classroom environment, an environment in which I have witnessed fascinating interaction and consequential insight and growth among students and faculty for decades, Professor Cohen counters that some shy students don't interact much and others may not be paying attention. This is hardly compensatory for the lack of significant, symbiotic intellectual development, development that occurs for only a small cohort of students in online classes.

Professor Cohen says her "students consider social networks to be true, meaningful social interactions." Right, and some of my students believe that if you miss 10 classes and do all right on exams that it must mean that you lose nothing substantive through excessive absences.

Professor Cohen raves about the possibility of extending online classes to include guests, but that is certainly not incompatible with a traditional class experience, wherein such participation is far more advantageous.

The effect of the group learning experience, witnessing substantive oral interaction in-person, is so superior to the on-line lack of community that it is hard to believe that the latter's supporters, absent the economic motivation, are serious about the value of online classes.

When I witness students who struggle with and then apprehend political rhetoric after two and one-half hours of give-and-take in an electrified class atmosphere, I sympathize with students who may try to understand such matters online.

A colleague of mine with significant experience in online courses at Ohio University agrees with the gravamen of my criticism of online courses, but does maintain that such courses offer more of an opportunity than a face-to-face classroom to examine and re-examine “a teacher's verbatim words.” As I have indicated, to make an overwhelming comparative advantages case for traditional learning courses over online courses does not require proving the latter is 100% bereft of value. My bud agrees.

There are always economical shortcuts in education, but I had always assumed that the purveyors knew how they shortchanged students educationally. A 3-week minimester philosophy class for 3 credits in ethics? Is there a serious professor or administrator who believes that offers learning equivalent to a 15-week class meeting two or three times a week? (By the way, Professor Cohen, the most frequent model for a "traditional class" is not one meeting "once a week.")

Yes, online classes are here to stay, and they are cost-savers and they are not literally without value for all students. They also compromise the learning of students who will be falsely accredited and sold a bill of goods to save some money.

That, unfortunately, is the new paradigm in many universities.

Professor Vatz is the longest-serving member of Towson's University Senate

(The Faculty Voice is published quarterly at College Park and
distributed to all faculty members and many staff members in
the University System of Maryland - plus some state and
local officials as well as friends of The Faculty Voice.)


cdls said...

I'm not entirely sure why this is being presented as an "either/or" situation. There are pros and cons to online and traditional classes. As someone who teaches the same class in both forms, I see the dedication of the students and teacher as being far more important than the "presence" of the class(room). The argument that online classes are automatically of lower quality and will inevitably "take over" seems alarmist and unlikely. Higher education is a larger experience than just getting a grade in a class...and if that is changing, I can say with some confidence that a more sinister "paradigm shift" is taking place that goes far deeper than just a profusion of online classes. The real issue, I think, is treating the education system as a business (these days everything in the U.S. seems to be falling into this mindset). If we're going to wring our hands about the state of education, we should delve deeper into the roots of the problem, which affects all classes, including the idealized type.

James said...

Having taught an on-line course for the first time last summer (and preparing to teach the same course in a couple of weeks), I must agree that while the on-line offerings are convenient for students and cost-effective for administrators, they most assuredly do not provide the same or even roughly equivalent educational experience for students.

The class I taught (which I have been teaching in the traditional mode for more than 20 years with great success) had an on campus section, with students in the live classroom for two hours every day for five weeks. All these lectures were video recorded and made available the same day through a course web site that synchronized the lecture video with the accompanying powerpoint presentation. The accessible video files were downloadable and also searchable by key terms in the powerpoint, or by terms students used in their notes. The software used (Panopto) was actually quite good for what it tried to accomplish.

But, one advantage of the Panopto software was the ability of the instructor to track exactly the number of minutes students in the distance-learning section spent watching lectures. I had 18 students in the distance learning section, and about 12 in the on-campus live class. Of the 18 students who took the class on-line (same assignments, quizzes, homework, etc., all completed and graded via the class web site) only 4 consistently watched the full lecture every day. Of the rest, about 10 watched some and not others, or routinely checked in for 15 or 20 minutes only. And, I actually had four students who paid tuition to take the on-line course, who took the quizzes and submitted written assignments, but who did not watch a single minute of a single lecture. In effect these students skipped 36 hours of lecture. Not surprisingly not one of the four got higher than a D in the class (and thus failed for purposes of crediting the class for the major). In addition, almost none of the on-line students participated in optional class discussion board exchanges.

The on-line class requires a certain kind of student who is self-motivated and self-disciplined. The successful on-line student must be committed to doing the work regularly without supervision and distraction. For some non-traditional students this may be a perfect option. For most of the cohort of 18-22 year olds who have lots of distractions and little motivation (especially while working or enjoying summer vacation), and whose parents are paying the tuition bill, this approach to education may prove beyond their capacity for self-discipline and sustained attention.

I've made some adjustments for the upcoming version of the class, to try to make students more accountable. But, I'm not terribly optimistic. In general, it is probably the case that administrators will continue to push this option and continue to assure the tuition-paying public that these are credible and credit-worthy classes. In my opinion, that's not true, and it is a scandal to pretend a student learns as well looking at a computer as he/she does engaged with a live professor in person in a classroom.

And, don't even get me started about the legal and intellectual property issues involved.

Brandon said...

I find myself somewhat skeptical about claims that online education is "inferior" to traditional education.

I will grant you that Cohen's arguments (at least in so far as you've portrayed them) fail to pass muster for me in some regards. Fiscal feasibility isn't reason enough, in my opinion, to warrant the extensive use of the online classroom.

However, the way you (Vatz) belittle online interactions as socially meaningless requires the same skepticism. On what basis do you make the argument that online interactions are inferior to offline ones? Have any literature, communication based or otherwise to support that claim? I can think of some, but most of it has fallen quite out of favor academically and the trajectory of research in the past 20 years points to quite the opposite conclusion.

Having a friend who agrees with you is hardly convincing evidence that, as one of your commenters suggests, online education is "most assuredly" inferior. Rather than rest on anecdotal evidence, how about we turn to the literature and draw conclusions from that.

For instance, one good reference that has done extensive work in categorizing online education and technologically enabled distance education is the No Significant Difference Phenomenon. (Google it and I'm sure you'll find the website.) This site allowed me to do a quick review of many of the articles published in this area over the past 19 years (since 1990).

My findings are these:

Of the 141 articles included in the sample, 6 had mixed findings. For the sake of argument, we'll count those in favor of the hypothesis that distance education is "inferior". Another 4 articles found that traditional classroom education provided better results for students. The remainder of the work (131 studies) found that technologically enabled distance learning was the same as or better than traditional classroom interactions.

I consider this sound evidence that your hypothesis that distance education is inherently inferior to the traditional classroom is deeply flawed.

Let's not ignore the negatives of technologically based instruction. They are real, I agree. You've even highlighted some of them. However, to discredit an entire method as ineffective in the face of such evidence seems, to me, to be terribly premature.

Further, although it's not a good enough reason to choose distance education on its own, the financial benefit to struggling universities--given that students seem to be able to get a quality education online--is not an unimportant consideration.

So, I disagree. Vehemently even. But I look forward to hearing your thoughts and continuing discussion.

Natalia said...

Greeting to all who have joined this conversation about the value and the promise as well as the slack (for both teachers and students) seen in online education! Well, we can beat this horse to death arguing that teaching or learning online is as good or not so good as traditional (offline, face-to-face, brick-and-mortar) education in universities and colleges. What I want you to look at is the nature of this debate and re-formulate the question from “which one is better?” to “how to teach better?”

“Online vs offline education” continues the disagreement about online and offline communication whereby one is considered a separated opposite of the other. The traditional forms of education suggest that a teacher should teach a class in a room. Some questions to ask about this “tradition”: Where does the tradition come from? Why is it a tradition anyways? What is the process of teaching and learning?
This form is rhetorically opposed – more often in negative terms – to the situation where a teacher teaches a class using a so-called course management system (usually online, with optional contacts via phone or meetings). Other questions then emerge: Is this not a tradition? Does it lack something? Why does it lack? This approach touches the issue of cheating, lack of attention from students to the lectures, their insufficient time spent in the course, and on and on. Yes, when a professor teaches with lectures and quizzes, then online is definitely not the way to go. Face-to-face rules, and this is the end of story.

However, cybercultural scholars suggest that we can no longer put the two ways of interacting, i.e. online or offline – no matter in academia, at work, or in families – as opposites. The two happen together at the same time. They do not clash against either, pushing and pulling, but rather online and offline merge, mixing and mashing, providing opportunities and creating constrains. For example, look at your everyday interactions with your family members: you call, meet, have dinners at home, send letters, visit friends and relatives, send emails and gifts. You create your family via various forms and manners of interaction. You do not think if the care is different if you send a card or make a phone call, do you? These moments of interaction create a group that is referred to as family.

Education is similar: we need to teach in various ways and manners using sound PEDAGOGIES appropriate for the moment, place, and subject matter. Yes, online education is driven by economy, administration greed, and other factors seemingly unrelated to everyday teaching process. Yet, the actual teaching is driven by learning objectives and pedagogical approaches. Thus, our questions must be: Who teaches the course and how? What kind of pedagogy is it? What kind of academia is it that we want to create? What kind of learning is it that we want to emulate?

Pedagogy is the key when we approach the assignment of creating any course. Lecture when students listen to a professor and diligently copy notes from Power Point slides is not an answer and has never been one to the question of effective learning and teaching in academia. The bigger issue is “HOW to create an assignment or a lesson where students are ACTIVELY engaged in learning” – this is what is important for today’s university courses.

I’m teaching my third semester online in a school with mostly traditional courses and a strong push towards online education.

Joel said...

Before continuing this conversation we might like to review the Oblinger & Hawkins article, "The Myth About No Significant Difference” at:

it seems that the question we ask may make a difference on the outcome of our conversation.

I'm afraid that I don't find the No Significant Difference website terribly compelling as it seems to be a site designed to promote Mr. Russell's bias toward distance learning. That said, Mr. Russell seems to be a fair advocate for his side of the issue, however, after a brief survey, I find his evidence to be rather schizophrenic with respect to method and conclusions; although this isn’t to say that individually the articles are without merit.

I think that James comes closer to addressing the problem when he discusses issues of motivation. Those students who are sufficiently motivated will do well regardless of the medium. On a related note, I understand that CNN recently (within the past two weeks) presented a story on the effects of recess on childhood learning. The gist of the story was that in an age of budget cutbacks recess is one of the first casualties. The result of this loss seems effect child development in intangible areas such as creativity, rule & norm development, social enculturation with respect to fairness and turn-taking, etc.; the bottom line seemed to be that children who missed out on recess were underdeveloped (somehow) in critical thinking and group interaction as adults. (I have not seen this report first hand but I would like to; if anyone is privy to where I may access this report I would appreciate an opportunity to see it for myself.) The bottom line is that this report seems to speak to the kinds of qualitative affects that may be missing from online venues.

The corporate model and the apparent benefits related to online instruction is based on traditional classroom expectations. Typically, faculty provide 3 hours of instruction per week and commensurate office hours equal to the number of semester hours taught. Developing video lectures seem to be equivalent to lectures although the production of the video lecture may not account for editing. Online chat sessions e-mail or messaging responses would seem to be equivalent to office hours. But what happens when those hours are exceeded? Can the individual faculty member bill for those hours separately, should they be able to bill for additional hours? What happens to the cost efficiency to online courses if the additional billing is included? It seems to me that if an institution wants to adopt online education as a variation of its offerings, the corporate model needs to adjust in ways that reflect the differing demands placed on the faculty member.

Professor Sue said...

I just have a few comments. James...that is not an example of poor is poor pedagogy. It is cheating the system and the students to offer canned lectures from a separate class and call it online teaching. We don't accept students 'recycling' papers and lessons so why should it be permissible for instructors/schools? is nice to visualize someone teaching the same class to a small group, for 20 years but the online classes are more often replacing those huge lecture courses with one instructor talking non-stop for 1.5 to 3 hours before passing the students off to a TA [if they are lucky]. I have been teaching an online ethics class for 6 years now and I get to know my students as well as I do when teaching it f2f. I get to know the quiet ones much better.
The assignments are far more is not so easy for students to find someone to do 20 plus assignments for them as it is to find one to do the 1 or 2 papers due in many f2f classes. Many students sit at the back of the room texting and surfing, rarely doing their reading...yet they still get through, particularly if group work forms an appreciable portion of their grades. That is much more difficult to accomplish in a well organized online class. It is not difficult to create well scaffolded assignments that defy traditional cheating.
If every class topped out at 20 or 25 students, all prepared and willing to enter discussions and question the readings then I would, perhaps, agree that f2f is clearly the preferred format. I say perhaps because there are technologies such as 'elluminate' or even group skyping that allow for free flowing interactions also. The problem is, few classes really fit that ideal any more until you reach the graduate level.

James said...

@Professor Sue: "That is not an example of poor is poor pedagogy. It is cheating the system and the students to offer canned lectures from a separate class and call it online teaching. We don't accept students 'recycling' papers and lessons so why should it be permissible for instructors/schools? "

Well Professor Sue, I think you've missed something in the description of the my online courses. The lessons offered to distance-learning students are the very same lectures given earlier in the morning to the on campus students (and include remarks and comments on homework exercises submitted by both on campus and distance-learning students). The lessons are made available to the online students immediately following the original live lecture to the on campus class. Distance-learning students can watch the lecture anytime it fits their schedule later that day. How is this "recycling" or "cheating"? How is this a "canned lecture?" I'm not posting lectures I gave in 1995! I'm merely making available to students off campus what other students saw a mere hour or so earlier.

Maybe I'm missing something, but do you go live seven or eight times a day with completely original material whenever it would be convenient for different groups of two or three of your students to attend your video lecture? I doubt it.

Peacesurfer said...

Having taught online for about 10 years now, I've heard all these tired arguments against online teaching trotted out before--always by those who have NEVER TAUGHT or even TAKEN an online class before!

So please, folks, either take or teach at least ONE online class and find out what its strengths and weaknesses are are first, before you go charging off to slay this particular windmill.

I'd be the first to agree that online teaching isn't a panacea, but it's not all bad either. Traditional teaching face to face often caters to gregarious, outgoing students, and the Socratic method has been shown to favor male students--so what? Should we quit traditional, in person teaching? I just think more reasonable, more well informed, less emotional arguments are in order when discussing the pros and cons of teaching face to face versus online, which is being blended anyhow now with Skype and video.

admin said...

Several advantages have been stated in regards to online learning and E-learning development. But the reason of having a self-paced on the learning sessions are easily accessible and available 24x7. Learners are not bound to a specific day/time to physically attend classes. They can also pause learning sessions at their convenience.