Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland IV – Revealed Truth

I ran across an article last weekend that stopped me in my tracks. Entitled “2013- the year of ups and downs for the MOOCs,” at the website Changing Higher Education, the unnamed author made a number of observations that were breathtaking in their candidness and their humility, qualities that are rarely observable in Edu-Cyberland.

To wit:

Many of the problems now being faced by the MOOCs are simply a natural consequence of the tremendous hype and enthusiasm that accompanied and drove their growth - reality eventually must come in. However, a large part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the MOOCs have in general been created with little or no attention to extensive research on pedagogy in general, and online pedagogy in particular.

This has certainly been my observation. Online technologies generally have been
heralded as the messianic answer to all the problems besetting education from kindergarten to doctoral studies. Seized upon almost instantly by the primary beneficiaries of this technology – the computer industries, the corporations who stand to gain from their use, the technocratic management of colleges and universities and the politicians looking for an easy out in their duties to public education (not to mention their ability to provide yet another sweet deal for their corporate pimps) – there has been a rush to put everything from law school to speech classes to physical education online.

As the critique rightly observes, much of the rush to cyberspace has been driven more by hype than concern for pedagogical soundness, much less for actual learning. For the techies, it’s an opportunity to have their cherished technology utilized - if not worshiped - by the wider public. For the business boys, there’s gold in them thar hills. For the ever growing technocracies on college campuses, it’s a means of managing their over-enrolled campuses which can no longer physically seat their all cash cows in classrooms. It’s also a way to continue steady cuts in education budgets by politicians now beholden to those same corporations.

It’s a win-win from the perspective of power and money. But from the perspective of the student who has no choice but to take courses online to graduate (and pay extra “technology fees” for them) and the contingent faculty who increasingly must teach online as the alternative to not working, it’s a Hobson choice.

While the website’s critique rightly points out the superficiality of the hype surrounding online education of all stripes and resulting stampede to embrace the same, it only raises one important question: how we do this v. what we’re doing. Far more important questions go unraised here: Why we do this in the first place, what we are assuming about these endeavors and what impacts they might have (and have proven to have) on all the parties to public education.

I was particularly taken by this comment:

This confusion of show business and education will not move the learning process forward any more than does the confusion of technology and education. It is all about using the appropriate, research supported instructional techniques.

This was a response to comments by the CEO of EdX, Anat Agarwal at the Sloan Conference, who suggested that MOOCs might become more effective (translated: popular) if they employed actors to give the lectures. "From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well…”  – not to mention they can probably insure higher profits, right? After all, what’s really the difference between being entertained at the movies or taking a college course on a MOOC, right?

Bear in mind, this is the same speaker who candidly admitted in his address to the Sloan Conference that MOOCs are not working and that hybrid use of online technologies (part face-to-face, part online) is the best and highest use of the technologies.

However, this is a good example of the superficiality of much of the online educational world. The focus here is on how things are done, the bells and whistles, the presentation, not what is being done, why it’s being done this way and how it impacts both teachers and learners. Ins short, it’s the difference between a college course taught online, as I always label my own courses, and an online class.

The focus of the first is the content, the pedagogical method and the endeavor to insure learning despite the physical absence of the student and instructor. It is a substantive approach focused more on content than appearance. It requires engagement if it is to work.

The focus of the second is the technology employed to which all other considerations are subject and secondary. It is marked by a focus on process rather than substance, appearance and experience rather than content. It is driven by consumerist considerations of comfort and convenience which often result in minimalism in course requirements and effort demanded as well as reductionism in thinking.

Ding Dong, Delivery Man

But it was this comment that brought me up short:

Research over the years has shown, however, that technology delivers instruction, but the quality of the learning depends on the quality of the instruction rather than the delivery vehicle.

One of the things that is often striking in any conversation about online teaching and learning is its highly dogmatic nature. Much like the great church councils of the late Roman Empire, there are certain truths that are regularly asserted in this discourse which must simply be accepted as unquestionably true. One of them is stated above – that instruction is somehow “delivered. “

The term deliver is problematic on a good day. Here, the usage is connected to a limited endeavor – instruction – but the more general usage of that term among the purveyors of online education is frequently connected to classes. I heard this the first day of my training to teach online (which, ironically, occurred in a face-to-face class rather than online) – you’re going to deliver your class….

Seriously. How can a class - or even instruction - be delivered? Deliveries are the realm of UPS and FedEx agents in smart uniforms who bring packages to your door awaiting your signing for them, opening them and consuming their contents. No real engagement is required in these transactions (so long as the payment has cleared). 

The problems with using such a description for what is ostensibly an educational experience should be obvious. One doesn’t learn simply by paying for a delivery. If learning is to occur, it always requires engagement. What is “delivered” in online courses is a compact, somewhat minimalized opportunity for a student to engage the course material and the other members of the learning community. What happens beyond that initial opportunity lies in the hands of the participants.

One of the key problems with online classes of any kind but particularly of the first wave of MOOCs is that students simply are not engaging them. The correlation between onsite presence and performance is well documented. And the drop out rates, which are several times those of their face-to-face counterparts, are much higher. 

Ironically, it is the educational approach which requires the most investment from the student that appear to be most destined for completion of courses if not success in them, a dynamic completely counter-intuitive to the consumerist mantras of convenience and comfort as the only guiding values. Indeed, might not the very terms we use here – the delivery of instruction – signal to the consumer that their obligations to the process are limited at most? 

Might we be setting students up for failure?

This article reminded me that I had not written my final installment regarding my visit to Edu-Cyberland’s Sloan Conference last month. That follows. 

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

 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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