Monday, February 25, 2013

Blog CXXXIX (139): On-line Education: More of the Same

In the course of writing this blog, I have learned a few new things. One of those is that the best news coverage—and maybe the only regular coverage—of higher education comes from The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.  As a result, I have tried to avoid reproducing news articles from those two publications. I will not break with that tradition today, but the Times published an editorial “The Trouble With Online College” in its February 19, 2013 issue that deserves comment.

The editorial began by noting a stunt that took place at Stanford University.  A non-credit, open enrollment class on artificial intelligence drew more than 150,000 people. The editors at the Times were not impressed.  “This development, though, says very little about what role online courses could have as part of standard college instruction. College administrators who dream of emulating this strategy for classes like freshman English would be irresponsible not to consider two serious issues.”

Those two issues focused on student concerns.  “First, student attrition rates — around 90 percent for some huge online courses — appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. Second, courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed."

The editorial spends a good deal of time exploring the issues facing students requiring remedial education.  “Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly.”  I take some difference with the editors of the paper on this point.  College and universities might not be the right place for students that never mastered English and math in high school.  For the most part, though, it is hard to argue with the basic thrust of the editorial—on-line education is a bad idea.

The editorial got a lot of commentary on the Times website.  Over 450 posts, last time I checked.  The bulk of these comments focused on the student experience, but I want to direct our attention towards the other side of the podium—or in this case, the computer—and talk about the prospective of the professor.

On-line classes might seem the wave of the future, but what type of future? How much feedback and of what type will you be getting from students?  It seems likely that there will be a lot of detachment on both sides.  That is unfortunate.  I often get some really good ideas from my students in the interaction that takes place in classrooms.  A lot of other stuff will also get lost; the intangibles, the emotions, the frustrations, the joys, and the complexities of wrestling with material and discussing it; and maybe connecting with a student and opening them to a new idea; or recognizing that you have done some good.

Another thing to consider are the widespread complaints and concerns about the decline of tenure-track jobs at universities and the use of instructors who are often only a yearly contract or are paid by the course rather than drawing a salary and who receive no benefits like health insurance or retirement plans.  On-line instruction will only offer more of the same.

The ironic thing is that many of the people who are suffering most from this system are the ones that are helping prop it up—the senior grad students or the newly minted Ph.D.s.  In an effort to bolster their credentials, they take some part time teaching assignments, or lacking a permanent position, they accept temporary, one or two year positions.  These are the people that are most likely going to be the ones teaching the on-line courses, reducing the need for them and their colleagues.  Why hire a new faculty member, who can only teach maybe 150 students total depending on teaching loads, when you can hire someone who will teach 150 per class and be happy for the opportunity.

From my own experiences on hiring committees, this type of experience has only limited utility in making a candidate more attractive.  They are mostly likely teaching only broad survey, and not upper level or graduate classes.  Most on-line instruction is going to be in these large surveys.  Employment in this type of work for more that two years is a professional dead end when it is in the traditional classroom.  It is hard to see it being anything better in the virtual classroom.

It might be best for new historians to recognize the downward spiral for what it is and walk away from this type of work.  Of course, I know it is easy for me to make these observations with a solid job and career, but I have refused to get involved in any form of on-line instruction, at any previous point in my career, seeing it for what it is.  I hope some of you do the same.

1 comment:

  1. I'm curious for your next post. Excellent post. Keep writing such kind of information on your blog. I'm amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog that's both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy I stumbled across this in my hunt for something relating to this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Wishing you best of luck..