Thursday, October 15, 2009

Online education: A teacher speaks

"I'll never do it again." That's the title of an essay by Elayne Clift about teaching online courses. It was published in May on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, and I've excerpted a section below. Some of the problems she points to are well known, such as increased workloads, low pay and communication difficulties associated with monitoring and responding to lots of email and message board posts. But I thought I would highlight some sections that are relevant to my recent critiques of the Harvard Extension School's aggressive expansion into online education:
1. "Virtual community" is the ultimate oxymoron. It is an inherent contradiction in terms -- like saying one is "fresh from the tennis court." While some people find the anonymity enabling and are able to bond with their cybergroup and engage in true confessions, I find it extraordinarily difficult to communicate with people for whom I have no face, no persona, no body language, no in-the-moment exchange. To me, virtual anything is by definition not real. In the case of the classroom, it is a substitute for an actual space in which people physically gather to explore, discuss, grapple, and grow together in the true spirit of learning and meaningful exchange.

2. The lack of immediacy in communication is maddening. I met my British husband 38 years ago when we both worked in Washington. When his job ended and he returned to London during a tenuous time in our relationship, it took us at least seven days to have a conversation, let alone an argument. (Those were not only pre-computer days; overseas phone calls were still considered a luxury.) I revisited that experience every time I read and responded to students' posts, waiting to see what they would say the next time I heard from them, all the while worrying that my feedback might be misinterpreted and thus hurtful or confusing. I can think of no more important place for immediate communication to occur than in a classroom where difficult subjects are being discovered and debated. It is essential, in my view, that a teacher be able to probe, clarify, comment in the moment. That moment is lost in a virtual community.

3. The quality of education is compromised in online learning. My first experience with "distance learning" did not occur in an online course, but it did involve adult learners and minimal face-to-face time. I taught in an adult degree program in which faculty members met with students only periodically —two weeks a year or on selected weekends. The rest of the student-teacher dialogue occurred through the mail. I never felt that the independent research that the students were undertaking completely matched what they might have learned from a structured curriculum designed to expose them, in a systematic way, to theories and key thinkers in their fields of interest. I can say unequivocally that students were given credit for independent work that never would have passed muster in a traditional course of study.

Similarly, in online teaching, I was only able to introduce students to a limited amount of material outside of the textbook readings; it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online. Nor could I adequately help them develop better writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas because there simply wasn't enough time or a proper forum. For one thing, online courses, in my experience, are too big; I can't give each student enough attention. That load contributes to the poor quality of discourse — an interchange that, in traditional classrooms, is not only my reward but a way for students to realize their own intellectual growth.
I think Clift is overly critical of the ability of people in virtual communities to form relationships and communicate, but I think her point about such communities lacking "meaningful exchanges" is appropriate for those situations in which faculty don't have the bandwidth to make connections with students. This is the case in at least some online Extension School classes I've been told about (see the update at the end of this blog post). I also suspect it's been the case for some of the videotaped Harvard College classes used by the Extension School. According to Dean Michael Shinagel's account in The Gates Unbarred, these classes were introduced as a way for otherwise busy Harvard professors to participate in the Extension School's online program, which leads me to wonder how much interaction takes place between faculty and distance ed students in the classes.

I fully agree with Clift's statement that "It is essential, in my view, that a teacher be able to probe, clarify, comment in the moment." This type of contact is missing from online courses that focus on prerecorded video, email, and message boards. I've tried it, and it was frustrating: You can't raise your hand and get an answer. You can't steer the debate in a new direction. In class you will be exposed to these types of interactions even if you don't participate, but in an asynchronous online format, it's all too easy to ignore those threads, be left out (if the debate is carried on by email between the teacher and just one student) or fast-forward over the Q&A segments of the video.

However, this doesn't mean that technology can't help bridge the gap. The Extension School is trying a live Web conferencing program called Elluminate for some classes. Real-time dialogues using video conferencing and virtual worlds may also play a prominent role in distance education. Unfortunately, the technologies aren't ready for prime time ... at least not yet. Elluminate relies on audio chat, text, and a simple GUI, but does not include video. High-quality video conferencing setups currently cost tens of thousands of dollars, while virtual worlds require lots of preparation and a sharp learning curve to master. But live video and virtual worlds have the potential to provide something that most Web-based platforms lack -- unencumbered dialogue between students and teachers, and the free exchange of ideas.


Update: Since writing this post, I have taken an online math class for credit, and have this to say about the online education experience:


  1. Interesting article - Elluminate does offer video though.

  2. After obtaining an Associates degree from a Local Community College I am considering online college. I have read several comments from many different people. My experience at The "local College" was not too different from some of the so called on line horror stories. We had classes that were way too large for the instructor to answer everyone's question and the instructor was somewhat useless because of it. If the finals are off site and monitored, I do not see how you can deny the results.

  3. I have taken classes on campus as well as online. The main distinctions are that campus students learn by listening and having verbal discussions, whereas online students must learn independently by reading and then discuss through writing. Some people do not have the patience to deal with electronic communication and prefer face to face interaction; however, others are written communicators who prefer a more self-directed approach. Do you like to ask questions to learn the answers, or would you rather investigate the matter yourself by looking it up? I prefer the latter; however, I am sure there are many who have not the patience. Teachers as well as students should consider these variables before applying.

  4. I don't see how this is any different from my ASU Electrical Engineering degree. Many of the teachers were just lab assistants for a semester, didn't speak english very well or were just teaching to fullfill a goverment funding mandate that they can only do research if they teach at least one class. I'm not advocating an online degree per say, most of the friends that I have asked that are going to the CAMPUS UoP MBA classes say they are mostly all taught by business owners, CFO's, etc (People who know what they are doing).


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