Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Education and the Future: Online or Classroom?

Education is changing and at an amazing pace. 
Correction, the world is changing at an amazing pace and education is trying to catch up. 

The technology boom that began in the early 1990s with the internet has touched everything we do in life. On more than one occasion my wife and I have asked: "what did we do before Google? How did we get information for, say, a vacation!" Well, quite often we called a number. 

Need to know the weather for a trip in Phoenix? Call the weather! Need flights to Phoenix? Call the airline directly. And if you want to compare flights you had to call them all. After looking in the phone book, mind you. Want to get a campsite at a national park? Call a special 800 number that would then give you the number for that park. And on and on it went. It was how we lived. We didn't know any better. We were the masters of our destiny and it was only a phone call away.

Little did we realize just how much the internet would change things. I can now compare flights to Phoenix, book a hotel and get the weather all at one website. This means not only do I get the information I need quickly and efficiently, it also means that the travel industry has changed tremendously. There are few "travel offices"anymore, which means even few people are needed to staff them. People don't need them to book a vacation when they can do it all online. They are still using their phones, but oh how those phones have changed.

Education is changing too. I began teaching my first online course in 2009. In many ways I was Johnny-come-lately for this form of teaching. One reason I delayed was that I hadn't yet been convinced of the need. My classes were always full and there didn't seem to be a need. With the economic contraction of 2008 I was forced to join the ranks of those who teach courses online. I have to admit that I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I discovered that I was able to deliver a better course to my students. I was able to be more creative and diverse in the way that I present information and the students seemed to benefit from the experience. 

What I missed, and still miss, however, is seeing student faces and getting to know them. I have had students in online classes that I have never met and wouldn't know if they knocked on my door. I have tried and have yet to to discover a way to make community online. And students have reflected that same concern to me. They like being able to "attend"class when they are ready, but miss being able to ask questions during a lecture. And like me they feel the isolation of being alone and apart from a group. Now with the debut of MOOCs, I suspect that the feeling of isolation will only grow. 

In light of this, I thought I would share some articles that have come to my attention recently. The first is a letter from an online student in theology. He has experience in both online and traditional and ends up voting for the traditional. 
There are however disadvantages too and two in particular stand out. First the sense of student isolation must never be underestimated. If peer group pressure can be difficult to negotiate peer isolation can be an academic disaster. No matter how much self-confidence one has, the nagging doubt about what others are making of this issue saps it. Just a few months in a class of fellow students has reinforced my belief that ‘wondering what others think or are doing’ is a necessary and desirable condition in all students as much ‘learning’ takes place in informal discussion with fellow students (and even more so with staff) in an unthreatening environment. An email simply does not perform this function, even if one is fortunate enough to receive a reasonably fast response (not too likely to be the case in my experience).

The second is an article that notes how many students that enroll in online courses are bored and not finishing the course. Part of the problem seems to be that instructors have merely repackaged the classroom in an online format which is sort of like when Saul tried to get David to wear his own armor. It doesn't work very well.
Hundreds of courses are now available from dozens of the world’s best universities and professors. There’s been a steady stream of glowing public relations and growing credibility among employers. There’s even an acronym for massive open online courses that’s gone mainstream: MOOCs. The four major MOOC platforms (Coursera, edX, Udacity and Udemy) have attracted at least 4 million sign-ups to date. Many of those people are working adults looking to pick up new technical or business skills, or update old ones, in order to advance their careers.
So far, though, online courses are not building a massively better-skilled workforce.Sure, a few free, open, online courses have generated eye-popping registration numbers, upwards of 200,000 in some cases. However the average enrollment for MOOCs is more like 30,000 to 50,000. The real problem, though, is that more than 90% of these would-be learners don’t finish. Many don’t even start the courses for which they are registered. And a lot of those who finish don’t take another one. That means the number of people actually learning anything substantial is much less massive than the PR suggests.

The third is a short article that talks about how 72% of professors don't' think students should get credit for online courses. Obviously I don't agree, but it does raise some questions about what is happening in the way we deliver information.

72 percent of professors who have taught Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) don’t believe that students should get official college credit, even if they did well in the class. More importantly, these are the professors who voluntarily took time to teach online courses, which means the actual number of professors who discount the quality of MOOCs is probably much (much) higher. The survey reveals the Grand Canyon-size gap between the higher-education establishment and the coalition of tech companies and lawmakers that are mandating college credit for online courses.

The future of education will certainly be very different. But I wonder if we are experiencing the upswing of the pendulum at the moment and once the "novelty"of online has worn off and economic factors have improved, if you we won't see a swing back to a traditional form of education that has been radically reshaped by our current experiences

Your thoughts?


  1. I think that it'll take time for online classes to find their place in the academy. I agree that there is a novelty about them that seems to make folks want to teach anything and everything online. Some courses, however, I don't think will readily fit to that format. Some classes just require the safety and dynamic that only a classroom can provide. Others, may flourish in the online environment. One of my best memories was when a professor I had was recovering from surgery. We had class in his family room. That was fantastic! Fire in the fireplace and tea/coffee in the kitchen.

  2. I think the online and classroom based training models will coexist side by side. There are also chances that the universities will allow students to take some module of traditional courses in online format. However, each training mode has its own advantages and lacuna.