Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland I – A True Believer Defects

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend an online education technologies convention. The Sloan-C annual conference was held at Disney’s Swan Hotel over a four day period. I originally agreed to attend the final day because I was interested in meeting the man who operates one of the higher education teaching and learning discussion lists on which I participate. He’d encouraged me to come to the conference so we could talk over lunch. And I figured it would be an interesting experience to hear how computer folks see the future of higher education.

As it turned out, my lunch (or even coffee) date never materialized. But I did learn a great deal from my day trip to edu-cyberland , the first of which is that nothing about that encounter is cheap. My registration for just a half day of the final conference day was $200. Then there was the parking fee of $15 and the tolls enroute to the conference at morning rush hour. Fortunately for me, the department’s travel funds covered this. And, to its credit, the hotel was thoughtful enough to provide Starbucks coffee.

A Bomb Dropped Among the True Believers

The opening session featured the final keynote speaker at the end of a four day conference. Anant Agarwal, creator of edX, one of the new MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and a professor at MIT where edX has been pioneered, was the featured speaker. What he said had the true believers of a digital, self-directed educational system with no human teachers scratching their heads in disbelief. 

Angarwal began the speech by dropping a bombshell: MOOCs simply don’t work as a replacement for college courses. The reality is that the vast majority of students who enroll in them never finish. While MOOCs do provide access to enlightened speakers to viewers all over the world, in that sense they operate more like a highly democratized TED Talk than a college course. The latter demands student engagement, not mere passive viewing, hence the reason so many students (over 90% in places like San Jose State) simply disappear.

Of course, this was heresy in edu-cyberland. The worship of the work of our own hands when it comes to anything remotely involving technology has long been recognized as a not-too-disguised form of idolatry. As Elizabeth Scalia so accurately observes in Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, “We humans create gods so reflective and shiny that they keep us looking at ourselves,” or at least what we want to believe about ourselves and our reality. According to Scalia almost all idols trace back to this same source: “I” is the first idol.

Neal Postman accurately predicted 30 years ago in his book Technopoly that in a culture which had come to be mediated almost entirely by technology, all innovations in technology will inevitably be seen as progress regardless of their impact on that culture. If it can be invented, it must be used. One wonders if the villagers in Pakistan periodically visited by missile laden drones share that presumption. No doubt the 90%+ of the students who bailed on the MOOCs are wondering the same thing.  

But Angarwal was not finished. The best and highest use of online technologies, he said, was – GASP! - in a mixed mode application where face-to-face classroom meetings are interspersed with work online. Why? Because students simply need the human interaction. And without it, many of them simply will not become educated.

Clearly, access, proffered as the ultimate value among techno true believers, is only the beginning of the conversation when it comes to providing educational opportunity.

I told you so…..

I experienced no small amount of vindication in these comments coming from such an unexpected source. I have long said that the best and highest application of online technologies is as a complement to face-to-face class sessions.

In my own use of this technology, online sites allow for interactive Schedules (complete with linked readings, discussion topics and assignments) which are available to students 24/7. They are great places to upload the day’s power point for presentation in class, to link up the note outlines students can download to follow the lecture, to house links to Youtube film clips and to provide content quizzes the student must complete prior to class to insure reading and to test comprehension. They also allow for student engagement on days when the instructor cannot attend class. Indeed, on the Friday I attended the conference, my classes all had online assignments which were calculated into their engagement grades.

Because I have only experienced mixed mode classes (partly online, partly in person) as an instructor, I am not completely certain that this is the best usage of online technologies for students. But, if Angarwal is right, having the consistent, periodic engagement of live human beings allows for students to remain on track and to not experience the complete isolation and dehumanization that running solo at the end of a cathode ray tube tether often causes.

As I have experienced it, totally online classes best suit adult learners who are disciplined enough to manage their time between class and the multitude of other demands on their time (work, family, health) that they face. They are able to turn off the Facebook, Twitter and Gameboys long enough to be responsible to their coursework. This means that online works best in upper division courses if not post-graduate work. Ad it also means that most undergrads simply are not included in this group because they have not yet developed the self-discipline and time management to handle this context.

Ranking the Modes of Presentation

Even so, totally online classes pale in comparison with face-to-face sessions of these same students. Spontaneity, body language, tenor of voice, passion are all lost in disembodied asynchronous “discussions.” The ever present possibility of cheating on quizzes is a given. A predictable third of the students each class will encounter difficulties meeting the course requirements on schedule without the reinforcements of classmates and instructors to remind them. A common complaint among students who struggle in online settings is the experience of isolation.

On the other hand, accessibility, often touted as the consummate value in selling online courses, may be a deciding factor for some students. If one has to choose between a totally online class or not completing one’s education because they simply cannot make the trek to the campus for class meetings, the former is the lesser of the two evils.

I also willing to consider the possibility that a small online class might be at least equal if not potentially superior to a large, factory process lecture class offered in an auditorium with hundreds of your most intimate friends. The former at least has the potential for an instructor to identify students having problems and addressing them directly in private. In the latter, students predictably begin their visit to your office with “I’m Student  X and I’m in your Y class and I want….”

If I were to rank course formats by potential quality of educational experience and degrees of technological application, the list would look like this:

1. Small (maximum 25) face-to-face classes.
2. Small mixed mode classes
3. Medium (25-75) face-to-face classes

TIE 4 –
            Small online classes
            Medium mixed mode classes
TIE 6 –
            Large (76+) auditorium classes
            Medium online classes

8. Large online classes      

The ranking ranges from the highest degree of potential engagement of students to the highest degree of potential disengagement and isolation if not alienation. Clearly not all students will take advantage of the potential for engagement. Indeed, that depends largely upon their motivation for taking a given class in a given format.

A True Believer Defects

One of the more interesting aspects of the keynote address was seeing how it was received by true believers and corporate representatives. As I looked around the ballroom filled with perhaps 1200 attendees, my guess is that about half of them were engaged in the very behaviors that make success in online classes and MOOCs for most undergraduates (and even some of their older classmates) difficult at best – surfing the web, texting, playing games. What I found troubling is knowing that a large majority of these folks are actually the teachers of online classes. Little wonder they have trouble recognizing the problems with these behaviors and their potential impediments to learning.

I also have to wonder how many of them checked out on the speaker because they simply could not – or would not - hear what he was telling them. The hype that has surrounded online course technologies generally and MOOCs in particular has been nothing short of epic in nature. Predictions that online, fully automated courses would replace human teachers by mid-century have been regularly proclaimed by the prophets of Technopoly as if self-evidently true. The panacea of technology to resolve every woe of education in America has been routinely pronounced from pulpits at conferences such as this one to the halls of academia. Such hegemonic predictions dominate online discourse to such a degree that they confront the web surfer as revealed Truth.

And yet, while the Emperor may not be completely naked, his new set of clothes are decidedly scanty. And one of the recovering True Believers is now playing the role of the little boy who dared to reveal the truth.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, 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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