Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Virtues of Online "education?"

A recent report from the US Department of Education which analyzed studies of online education, blended classes and face-to-face (F2F) courses concluded that online courses provided better results than F2F and blended provided the most benefit of all. There are a lot of problems with the study but, not terribly surprising, the key element in student success in any of the formats tended to be the amount of time spent on the course. Imagine that.

A vigorous discussion has ensued on the Inside Higher Education site on this study. Here are my comments from this morning:

Having taught totally online, blended and F2F courses for the last seven years, I have a few observations:

1. Creating college courses and curricula based upon student convenience is profoundly misguided. Convenience is largely a consumer concern. Commitment is a pedagogical concern. That shows up in the not terribly surprising finding that time committed to class was the primary factor in student success. Of course, that is true regardless of the format.

2. Institutional economic imperatives provide a poor basis for pedagogy. That universities overload their student bodies with more bodies than they can actually house in classrooms and staff with instructors does not provide a compelling reason to simply dump those students into online sections to insure they can actually graduate.

3. Some students are more appropriate for online courses than others. Students who succeed have good time management skills and a healthy respect for deadlines. That, of course, is true for any format of class but it’s particularly imperative for online courses. Upper division students tend to do better than first term freshmen (though they generally complain more, often because they have delayed taking a lower division general education requirement they didn’t want to take in the first place until the end of their college careers).

4. Some classes are more appropriate for online presentation than others. Classes with heavy visual content such as art and humanities require enormous download time. If convenience has become the recruiting tool for online classes, the disconnect with time needed for downloading materials quickly becomes problematic. Similarly with literature classes and philosophy courses with large .pdf files for reading. Quiz driven math courses and computer programming classes which generally draw students with many of the skills being developed therein are much more appropriate for online presentation.

5. It has not been my observation that online discussions tend to produce much of substance and rarely approaches the vitality of F2F discussions. One place such an approach may be superior is with introverted students who tend not to speak out in class discussions. Indeed, introverts may find online formats less threatening generally. But small group discussions in F2F classes can readily accomplish the same thing.

6. Having taught in all three formats, I would rank them this way in terms of educational soundness: 1. blended, 2. F2F, 3. totally online. That ranking would change slightly if class size exceeds 40-50 students. In the case of classes with more than 50 students, I would rank F2F last because of the lack of ability to know students and the potential for behavioral problems increasingly marking undergraduate populations today.

7. Online classes best serve adults struggling to gain a college education but unable to leave their work to attend full-time, often because of family concerns. They also serve students who must be away from campus for a semester, often the summer semester. Finally, they serve the needs of students who cannot get classes they want in person (e.g., Latin courses in high school) and are willing to do whatever they can to gain those courses. They are least useful to surface learning frat boys who simply don’t want to brave their hangovers to attend class and strategic learning degree seekers who want to get college over as quickly as possible to go out into what their limited conception of a “real world” where money is made. Of course, in neither of those cases is education the primary concern, it is simply the means to another end, much like much of online education tends to be, sadly.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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