We need to talk about online learning…

We need to talk about

Inside Higher Ed published the results of their Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology today – a collaboration with Gallup.  It details faculty opinions on many areas of technology, including online learning.  Of course, as a distance professor, I was eager to see the results.  And of course, they reflect the same old, tired attitudes about online learning.

So let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, when I was a college student, I took a hybrid online course.  It involved participating weekly in discussion boards on Blackboard, turning in papers online, and coming to one brick and mortar class meeting, where we were to give PowerPoint presentations on our final papers.  There were two things that stood out to me as I took this course.  First, the amount of work in this course was substantial.  There was more reading and writing than in any of my on the ground courses, and the discussion board assignments were a snooze.  The second thing that stood out to me was the complete lack of connection with my classmates and my professor.  I had no clue who any of these people were or what they were like, other than some perfunctory text comments on Blackboard or in the margins of my papers.  So when the final day of class arrived, I was excited to finally have some kind of real interaction with my classmates.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  We sat at our desks, the professor gave a brief and monotone explanation of how the presentations would work, and we got started.  One after the other, we presented fairly boring PowerPoints, while the professor nodded off in the back of the room.  Yes, nodded off.  But we were so disengaged from the course at that point that we didn’t really care.  We went through the motions of completing our presentations, all got a perfunctory A, and I never saw or spoke to the professor again.

When I hear the criticisms and negative opinions of online learning, I am therefore not unsympathetic.  According to Inside Higher Ed’s survey:
“Only 17 percent of faculty members say for-credit online courses taught at any institution can achieve outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses, while 53 percent disagree or strongly disagree. Faculty members are even more negative about online versions of courses they teach themselves, with 59 percent hypothesizing that an online course couldn’t match the quality of face-to-face instruction.”

Those numbers are dismal.  And how about this?

“Also unchanged are the indicators that — to faculty members — mark a high-quality online course and the areas where faculty members say the mode of delivery falls short. No more than one in 10 faculty members say online courses are better than in-person courses when it comes to delivering course content, reaching at-risk and exceptional students, and interacting with students in and outside of class, among other factors.”

When I actually delved into the report, though, I found some interesting things.  If the goal here was to determine what faculty think about the kind of online learning I experienced as a student, then sure.  These numbers make sense.  But that’s not the whole of “online learning.”  First, and most importantly, Inside Higher Ed has lumped all online learning together.  Survey participants answered the questions based on their evaluation of ALL types of for-credit online learning: MOOCs (yes, some MOOCs offer credit), asynchronous courses, synchronous courses, blended/hybrid courses, and synchronous, webcam-enabled learning (what I refer to as SWEL) courses.  This is a massive range of educational settings.  Just because they’re all online doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable.  There is simply no comparison between the online courses I teach and asynchronous online classes at a for-profit college, and to lump them together is severely misleading. Further questions ask if faculty have integrated lecture capture, but not if they’ve taught live, collaborative online courses; the omission displays a misunderstanding of the methods that leading online programs are using, which I have detailed in a previous post.

Additionally, one of the survey items asked “In your opinion, should institutions work with online program management companies to produce online degree programs, or should they primarily produce their own?”  The fact that the majority of respondents indicated that institutions should produce their own degree programs shows a severe lack of understanding around what it takes to create a truly high quality online program.  Our model, which allows the faculty to retain control of content and instruction, but partners with a private company (in our case, the brilliant and groundbreaking 2U) to produce, develop, and manage the technology, is highly effective.  It also prevents me, as a faculty member, from having to spend all of my time updating the website, and allows me instead to focus on instruction.

And noticeably absent from Inside Higher Ed’s writeup of the report is a discussion of this interesting bit of data.  Note that half or more of the respondents indicated that moving to a blended or hybrid course caused them to decrease lecture time and increase active learning techniques! That’s fantastic!  Even if the course isn’t a SWEL course, moving to active learning from lecture is a move in the right direction.

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And finally, a particularly inflammatory word choice belies the bias behind this survey.  Note the following item:
“This model of higher education threatens traditional faculty roles.”

Threatens.

THREATENS.

No.  This model of higher education will CHANGE traditional faculty roles.  AND IT SHOULD.  If the traditional faculty role is standing in front of a room of 300 students and lecturing in a monotone for an hour, then good riddance!

So what is there for progressive online educators like myself to take away from this data?  First and foremost, that we need to do a better job of getting the word out about what we’re doing.  I’m shouting from the rooftops, but I’m only one person.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of faculty around the world that teach in SWEL courses, that use robust, high quality instructional methods, and that achieve high educational outcomes for diverse populations of students.  We need to be a strong, clear voice in the discussion on online learning.

Do you teach a synchronous, webcam-enabled course? Share your information below to connect with other educators like you, and get our collective voice heard!

The most wired colleges in the US. WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo

WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo.

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Wifi is a wonderful thing to have, as are the myriad other tech resources that the listed schools have.  However, access to resources is not the same as having faculty and administration in all departments on board with the technological revolution.  Tech is changing the very nature in which we communicate and the ways we gain and share knowledge.  Surely every school has a stake in seeing their faculty and students become technologically literate and not just exposed to technology.

via The most wired colleges in the US. WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo.

 

photo credit: when i was a bird via photopin cc

Reflections on AERA: Where Do I Fit?

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I’m in the air right now on my way from San Francisco, to Dallas, and then home to Louisiana, after 4 days at the American Educational Research Association conference, and my brain is full. I experienced (and live tweeted!) many great sessions, spoke with a number of very interesting people researching important questions, presented my own research findings with a colleague, and did a little sightseeing. However, throughout my trip, I kept returning to one thought over and over. What is my role in all of this educational chaos?

For those of you who don’t know me, and what I do, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades before getting my doctorate and becoming a professor at USC. I’m currently an offsite clinical professor, which means that I do my work from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, even though I am employed by the University of Southern California. A few years back, the Rossier School at USC began an innovative program, in partnership with 2U, called the MAT@USC. It’s a hybrid program, meaning that our students do academic coursework online, in a 70% asynchronous and 30% synchronous format, and also do observations and student teaching on the ground in physical classrooms wherever they are located in the world (which includes students in 43 states and 27 countries, last I heard). One of the greatest misconceptions about this position that I hold is that I don’t see or interact with my students. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Each course I teach holds a 2 hour, live class session each week, where my students and I can see each other over our webcams (all at the same time, Brady Bunch style), and we can hear each other speak over a teleconference line. We also use a chat box, video, PowerPoints (non-boring ones only!), poll questions, virtual whiteboards, and a number of other technologies. Our classes are dynamic, interactive, and student-centered, involving lots of small group work and student led discussions. I’ve been teaching in this program for almost 4 years, and I think I’ve maybe lectured for 2 hours TOTAL over that entire time. My students engage with me via our Learning Management System, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and via texting. I review draft after draft of papers and projects, and meet with students individually to talk about their work, their families, their hopes, and their fears. I stay in touch with them, and encourage them to pursue doctoral work or to find classroom placements in high needs schools, or to come back and serve as mentor teachers once they’ve got some experience under their belts. I grade, grade, grade, and actually enjoy it. I watch the “game tapes” of my classes (every session I teach is recorded) and continually try to improve my practice.

What do I do outside the classroom? I engage with other faculty on curriculum development. I serve on school wide committees. I mentor new faculty and doctoral students. I create and distribute technological tutorials for faculty and students. I read and make decisions on applications to our program. I present at national and international conferences on the best practices we’ve honed in on through our teaching, and even do a little research here and there, though its not technically part of my contract. In fact, my first publication should be coming out shortly, and I’ve got 2 other research projects in the works. Not bad for someone who teaches 32 units a year and has no research funding or grad assistants.

Above all, though, I am a teacher of teachers. Sure, I dabble in research when I have a question I need answered that the literature hasn’t addressed (and in my field at the intersection of education and technology, those questions are many), but primarily, I’m a teacher. It is what I love to do, and I dearly hope that this is a job I’m able to retire in. Teaching is my passion, and working with adult learners via innovative technologies is my niche.

So why is it that, when I come to a conference of educators and researchers, I am often met with puzzlement or disdain when they find out what I do? Is it that they aren’t aware that people like me exist? Is it that they aren’t able to fathom something between an adjunct and a research professor? Is it that they believe that, because I don’t have a long list of publications on my CV, my voice doesn’t matter? It occurred to me more than once during this conference, that if, instead of pursuing a doctorate and becoming a teacher educator, I had continued in my position as a classroom teacher in a high needs school near East L.A., I would have commanded far more respect from some of the people I met.

They were often surprised to see me at a conference like AERA. Surprised to hear that, when I encountered an area that desperately needed research in my field (finding articles for the lit review was a challenge), I worked with another offsite clinical colleague and did some research. Surprised that my school would support me in doing this, since it “isn’t my job.” I am fortunate, I know, to be at an institution that DOES value my contribution. That hired me on full time, compensates me competitively, gives me resources like technological tools and faculty funds, and allows me to participate and be a voice in the department, and not just in the classes I teach. What I don’t understand is why this is such a rare and shocking thing.

OF COURSE we need clinical (teaching) professors; we are educators, after all, and having highly skilled and effective teachers in a school of education is critical. I think we all know that there are some research faculty who do not fill this need (nor should they; they are brilliant at answering questions I couldn’t even begin to address). OF COURSE we should provide a voice for these clinical professors, so that they can engage fully as stakeholders in the process of educating teachers, and bring their teaching and content area expertise to program and course design. OF COURSE we should support them to be part of the research community, either as critical consumers bringing back best practices from conferences, or as small scale researchers answering questions that might be overlooked by the larger scale research community.

I don’t think I have an answer yet for this question of where I fit in in the educational chaos. I know where I fit in my school, and I am deeply satisfied with that role. So for now, I don’t think I need to know where I fit in on the larger scale. I do think, however, that this is a question that will need to be answered by the larger educational community very soon. People like me are important to the equation, and are becoming more prominent; I hope we continue to be for a very long time. And I hope that, as the years pass, and I visit AERA again and again, that the attitudes shift from incredulity, confusion, and occasional disdain, to acceptance, support, collegiality, and a focus on how we can all help each other do what we do best.