Friday, September 28, 2012

Between Two Professors: Pros and cons to online undergraduate education

Adam Van Arsdale, a biological anthropologist at Wellesley, and I had a little cyberside chat about some big issues we're facing in higher education. It's cross-posted at Adam's blog here

Do you like the idea of online education?

Adam: On a theoretical level, yes. I like the idea of using technology to broaden the reach of higher ed institutions. The reason I became a college professor is, in part, because I love Colleges/Universities. They are amazing places full of incredibly intelligent and curious people. Broadening the reach of such places by making them more accessible via technology...that is an idea I can get behind. In implementation, however, I have a lot of doubts, questions and concerns.

Holly: No I don't like it, and that's probably mainly because it is alien to my perception of school and does not constitute, to me, a complete or fully engaged environment of learning.

School is full of sounds, smells, textures, air, and emotions and opportunities that come from sitting in proximity to other humans, learning among and with and from other humans, talking among others. School is where students can interact in person with teachers who are of a potentially unfamiliar demographic, with a different worldview, vocabulary, set of experiences, etc. than they may be familiar with. Performing experiments, painting, creating, and moving the body, all the physical work and physical learning. How does any of this take place online? And to restrict these physical practices to music courses and laboratories is bogus. We move about in my Human Origins class. I particularly value extemporaneous thought and the communication of it. I make students think on the spot and talk to one another and to me in class. If I don't understand or agree, I ask them to rephrase right there. I think that people who graduate from college should sound intelligent and should have the skills to clearly think quickly and then convey their thoughts spontaneously. How is this practiced online? And how do students present their work, orally, online? As a teacher, how do I imitate a knuckle-walking chimpanzee online?

I cannot imagine teaching anthropology online. Period. But even if I taught math, something I see thriving online on the education sites, I would still resist because I feel strongly about the human connection in real life being more constructive than anything that can form across cyberspace.

Adam: I also associate college with spaces, places, groups of people and experiences that could not possibly be replicated online. But I guess I don’t see online education as trying to replace or replicate that experience, but instead expand the idea of the College/University to something not bound by physical parameters.

The pedagogical issue of how to teach online is another issue altogether. Like you, I like creatively engaging my students. For example, as part of a first-year seminar course on the Anthropology of Food and corresponding to a discussion of the evolutionary origins of cooking technology, I held class around an open fire this week, complete with raw and cooked food. Not something you could achieve online.

That said, my teaching experience prior to Wellesley was, in part, teaching large lectures at the University of Michigan. These were classes with more than 150 students where I was responsible for designing all of the course elements and providing 2.5-3 hours a week of engaging lecture, but most of the individual interactions took place between the graduate student TAs working under me and the undergraduate students in the class. That style of teaching seems much more compatible with the current structure of online education platforms.

Holly: Your fire sounds great. I will copy that the first chance I can!

And, yes, that style you speak of in the last thoughts is more compatible with online courses. But although some students may learn a great deal from those big classes, that all-too common situation is not my idea of good higher education. Online education, to me, has taken so much of what is wrong with higher ed and turned that into a business model. It’s easy to see why. Many of these people in the business of online education probably got their degrees by sitting anonymously through huge lecture courses. Education, to them, was made for cyberspace!

But back down to Earth...Demonstration of independent complex and critical learning and thinking through extemporaneous writing is also important and these sorts of things cannot be done with the same kind of quality outside the classroom on the computer with books and Internet readily available for help. I do think that students should learn to be excellent seekers and identifiers of good information, because we can't all remember everything, nor should we have to when resources are at our fingertips thanks to the Internet, but I also think that students should be able to retain, evaluate, synthesize and explain information too. This is training for a life of the mind. This intense training, to my mind, cannot occur without a classroom.

Adam: Agreed on the sorting between the best and the worst of higher ed. I think the attraction of online education is often viewed as its scalability - the ability to take one great professor’s lectures and reach 10,000 people with them. That kind of scalability is, however, not very consistent with the best parts of higher ed, which are the individual working relationships between faculty and students. These are not only the kinds of interactions that predominate in the real world, but also the best way to teach.

One of my additional pedagogical concerns with online education is the potential for students to learn the information wrong. My biggest fear as an educator is not that students will not learn what I am teaching, but that students will leave my classroom having incorrectly learned what I teach them. I teach courses that deal with sensitive issues like race, intelligence and health and I regularly have students who, mid-semester, have gotten the information exactly wrong. This is the worst possible outcome. Meeting with students several times a week for 15 weeks has the advantage of ensuring that by the end of the semester there are very few, if any, students in this situation. The physical presence of the students helps limit this problem. With online students the ability to simply drop-out midway through the learning process seems greatly elevated.

Holly: Good point. And do you think that cheaper online education will become the only option for the less moneyed folks, while the ones who can afford personed, hands-on learning will get keep to the old way, but with fewer of the riff-raff around to get in the way?

Adam: I think this is a real issue. Most of the discussions around the “crisis of higher education” these days are not directed at the entirety of higher education, but rather at the widening class structure of higher educational institutions resulting from declining financial support for public universities. The potential of online education to crystalize the division between elite, on-campus student experiences and alternative online experiences seems real and worth considering carefully. But at the same time online education might (might) provide a way to expand higher ed opportunities to a larger fraction of the population.

Holly: Definitely. And it’s going to happen no matter what, but should we tolerate it? Should we restrict what I consider “real” higher education to the few who can afford it? This is antithetical to the whole point of it.

Further, people have their whole lives ahead of them to hunch over a laptop. Resist as long as possible! That's aimed at students, but what about us professors? Spending time on the computer to teach will suck up all the time and energy we put into writing papers and books. I know for me that if I have to spend more time on the computer for teaching online, my research and writing will suffer greatly. I cannot physically be at the computer so much. So that other part of my job, my purpose, would have to give.

Adam: I think we are on a ship that has already set sail in this regard. We are only likely to become more embedded with our technology in the future. I like to think of it in (pseudo-) evolutionary terms, imagining some poor human 20,000 years ago bitching about all the time his friend spends drawing on the walls of a cave... “If you want to see a wild auroch, why don’t you just come out here and look at the wild auroch.”

I place a tremendous value on my opportunities to go offline and take advantage of natural places (one of the reasons I love fieldwork), but I don’t pretend my reliance on technology in my personal and professional life is going to reverse its trajectory anytime soon.

Holly: I hear you but I physically can’t do it. I have cervical neck issues that immobilize me if I am at the computer too much or too long. Even if I stand. Even with ergonomic furniture. I cannot be the only one who suffers like this and resists the thought of a completely computer-based occupation, which for professors, is more than 40 hours a week.

I also worry that online education will mean fewer professorships (since an online course can teach many more, so fewer classes are offered; or conversely fewer will go into this business, preferring to work a different job than to teach online for little money). If fewer professorships exist because of it (and this would just complement the trend already going down) that will mean there will be fewer scholars which means scholarship slows down in those fields.

I also worry that teaching to more students by fewer educators will lead to a homogenization of knowledge, which to me spells h-e-l-l. And I don’t mean the same courses taken by every student, I mean the same (always limited and cherry-picked) content in those courses, with the same quirky theoretical biases! I would never take the job as the only or the main biological anthropology professor in the U.S. But that kind of thing could happen.

Adam: I share this concern. Technology applied to teaching should be aimed at broadening its reach, not undermining its value.

Holly: But if we want to ready humans for a future that needs little real-world socializing, since it's a future of humans hunched alone over their laptops, and in this future everyone needs to know much more of the same things as one another to succeed, then online education seems like a great way to get that accomplished.

No, I don't like the idea of it.

Why go online with higher education?

Adam: I think the reason to go online is to broaden the reach of the wonderful things that happen at higher education institutions. Giving more people access to more knowledge and opportunities to learn is a good thing. I am skeptical of profit motives for doing online education. Certainly, there is a cost associated with producing high-quality online educational resources and platforms, and online programs need to be financially supported, but I worry that profit motivations too easily undercut quality considerations in an online setting. I think the goal of online educational platforms should be to produce as high quality a learning environment/product as possible and run it at a cost neutral level (compensating for platform development, support, teaching and related areas).

Holly: I think universities want to do it because it's cheaper for them and it's appealing for students who can't afford to live on campus and could save money on the commute if they can learn from home. This all makes sense for everyone except for society at large, for our future, for humanity, for higher education and all that magical stuff we're supposed to care about and that many of us really really do care about.

I do love the idea of being able to take a guided course in something that's not offered nearby or that you can't take nearby because of your work schedule. And as a continuing ed tool it's amazing. It just seems like, to me, for undergraduate education, online education is taking much of what's wrong with higher ed--the stuff about it that makes it a horrible educational experience for so many: huge "classrooms," very little extemporaneous speaking, little independent and spontaneous critical and synthetic thinking, etc, etc etc etc--and making a business model out of that!

Now, hybrid courses seem okay. Students meet a few times in person and then hold some designated course time online discussing the course content. I still wouldn't want to do this (see above), but it seems to really be a great system for the professors who I know who have implemented it. However, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I worry that this hybrid thing is a wedge strategy by admins to get us to put entire courses online.

Adam: Again, I go back to the value-oriented motivation of expanding online education as a way of expanding the reach of higher education institutions, not increasing profit margins. Going back to our earlier concern about the number of jobs and compensation for professorial work, I like the model of online education expanding the customer base with a related expansion in the size of the profession. There are some potential cost savings in this approach in that eliminating the need, at least partially, for the physical structures of an institution lowers cost overhead. But generally, I think motivations to produce online education because of its increased profit margin are extraordinarily bad.

I also think, however, that the pressure to go online is growing tremendously for Colleges and Universities. My initial exposure to this area was in a job interview at a non-flagship state University. During my campus visit it was made clear to me that developing online courses would be part of my job. Here, the motivation seemed to be aimed entirely at enrollment and the related revenue and institutional clout issues that go along with having more students. But at my current institution, the consideration of going online seems driven more by issues of reputation. If the Stanford, MIT and Harvards of the world are going online, surely we need to as well simply to keep up.

To go online or not to go online...

Adam: I guess as a preliminary final thought, I hope that there is a movement towards more online, open access educational offerings by higher ed institutions. However, I have several caveats associated with that statement. I think the rationale should be based on expanding education opportunities and the associated fields of intellectual pursuit rather than creating a market for a degraded educational product. With this in mind, I am not sure that full, online courses, modeled after the kind of in-person courses currently being offered is really the best model (though it is a model that is rapidly expanding). I think we can be more creative in using higher ed institutions as generators of online educational experiences. In addition to the other fears articulated above, online education needs to be wary of vendors who are simply seeking to create systems of accreditation/certification rather than true learning experiences. As someone at a liberal arts College, I think our great strength is that we help smart people think creatively about how to use their intelligence across an infinite range of potential problems, not that we produce people with a specific degree.

Holly: I mourn for the loss of the college experience. And I don’t mean keg parties and football games (well, not entirely)... I mean the loss of the experience of active and engaged learning from marvelous humans. Dr. Indiana Jones taught in the classroom! He’s right there, erasing the chalkboard, collecting homework, recruiting future research assistants.

The college experience is incredibly exciting and reeking of potential opportunities for young people who don’t even know what those opportunities are until they arrive to college, until they get to interact with peers and professors with vastly different stories from their own. Going to college is traveling without a passport requirement. It’s priceless and it was open and available at relatively low cost to so many for so long and now it’s disappearing.

How much of my protesting is self-protection? How much of the changes to higher ed are just driven by whomever’s self-protection efforts (software companies, university admins) outweigh others? I don’t know. But I do know that my objections to online undergraduate education on educational grounds are valid and not just because I'm invested.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Today, through the faculty listserv, I was invited to attend a two-day workshop on "Emerging Technologies, Innovation, and Academic Transformation" which appears to be about getting faculty to produce online education thingies by "creating a culture of innovation" and there are many sessions including...

"Edupreneurship: Engaging Students in Mobile Learning"

"Engaging Stakeholders in Pilot Evaluations"

Pat Shipman said...

I am told online teaching is coming, ready or not. I hate the idea, personally. I KNOW I can take 15-85 kids and teach them a whole lot. I can see the light in their eyes when they get it; I can hear the empty "thud" when what I have said might as well have been in ancient Babylonian for all the comprehension that has been gained. I am told by people who do it that blended on-line courses that meet once a week in person work well. Maybe. But you know, I figure anybody in college can READ, which is the same as scrolling through online material. And I expected them to READ and told them so. And they did.
Not everyone is a dynamic teacher, I understand that.
Not everyone can afford $10,000 - 100,000 for their education (though it seems to me little in my life has served me as well as my education). I get that.
But educating as many as possible, as creatively as possible is about the most important thing we as a nation can do.
It is emotion that embeds ideas in our minds and emotion comes from interactions with others. So let's not be stupid and remove the emotion from education!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Students learn from each other and students better the courses that I offer. How do they do that online? Where are the teachable moments? The spontaneous questions and connections? The power to feel at the center of the universe for even a fleeting moment if not an entire course?

Holly Dunsworth said...

“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Holly Dunsworth said...

Online Education Grows Up, And for Now It's Free (NPR story)