What we talk about when we talk about online education

This post was written myself, Ava Arndt & Steve Anderson


This summer, we taught an online class (Introduction to Latin American History - Hist75V). We did this while some of the most vocal and occasionally contentious arguments on online education were raging within the University of California system.  Teaching online was not what we expected - it was much better, and what we want to do here is both express our position on online education and frame it in the context of wider issue digital education raises.

Teaching online: an education

The fact is that while the online class is new for many university instructors at Research 1 institutions, most of us have been using technology in class for quite some time. Perhaps it started with email, then a laser beam to point at slides in an overhead projector and then a PowerPoint, online syllabi, online grade-books, PDFs of articles, links to news items and images of historical artifacts, FAQ boards followed by discussion boards and SafeAssign, which both organized assignment submissions and made finding plagiarists a cinch. The fact is that most of us have been teaching with the support of online technology for quite some time.

Teaching online is  a jump in a different direction, so when we (Levy - lead instructor, Anderson - Teaching Assistant and Arndt - instructional designer) started to build the course, we established some guidelines and decided the class was not going to be an automated self-service course[1].  Our goal was to start small, and make it good. In the end, we developed a class that was accessible to many, challenging without being demoralizing, interactive and organized.  40 students enrolled in the summer session, and the next time this class will be offered in the Spring quarter of 2014, it will be open to at least 100 students from our campus, and possibly as many students from other University of California campuses.

We also decided to use simple video recording technology so we could record new segments easily and from anywhere, and add them as the class was running to respond to student requests.  The flexibility strengthened connections with students, and reinforced the connection between the instructor and the students.

As the instructors and designers of the course, we thought we knew how the course would work, but we had no way of forecasting student reactions and responses. Student grades were as expected - the average final grade was a B, with a fairly normal distribution, but the teaching evaluations were off the charts. The University Registrar evaluations were very high, and our exit survey echoed deep appreciation by the students of the interactivity and novelty of the course.

One of the surprises at the beginning of the class was the students’ fear of the unknown. The new course technology was a major fear factor, so it became crucial to respond to technical questions as soon as possible. It was also key to respond kindly and gently – technology can be frustrating and a frustrated student is wasting energy – and not learning anything.

We made ourselves available via twitter, Facebook, email and the online course discussion board – and often it took no more than a few exchanges to get a student set up correctly. This responsiveness reinforced for students the sense that they were operating in a community, and that the community had a sense and a purpose.

We learned that students are keenly aware of the pitfalls of technology, but also very grateful to be taught how to use it.  The content of the course would have quickly eroded without nimble responses to answer questions or fix technical issues.  The course would also have suffered were it not for some critical real-time interactions with students.

This sense of actual contact proved to be one of the most important aspects of the course. What we realized in teaching this class was that our priority had been on developing the content and the path students would take through it. We did not think of the courses as the locus of connections. While we thought of content and delivery, and worked to perfect that content, what students were most receptive to, and what helped them learn, was the connection.

In a large lecture class, that connection is often missing, and here is where the connection provided by a platform such as Google Hangouts became an essential part of the social cohesion on an online class. We could not have predicted how essential that interaction would be, even if in terms of total time of the course, the Google hangouts represented no more than 5% of the total.

The real-time conferencing services offered by services like Google, Skype, and adobe connect are very flexible many-to-many group conversation platforms. They recreate a classroom environment online and give a large, geographically diffuse class a home. We learned that in an online class that does not have a physical home and where students are in different places and time-zones, having one base where a group can meet and see each other in real time once a week was key to developing cohesion and engagement among the class.

Another aspect of the online hangout was that the groups were small and that everyone saw everyone – each participant’s face was on the screen, so it was almost as if the small group was sitting in a circle. The online hangouts also provided for the screen-sharing of images, so students could all see an illustration as the TA explained it.

The online hangouts were more intimate than a regular classroom discussion section.   In one hangout everyone showed their dogs on screen, including the lead instructor who had dropped into the discussion section.  Some students joined the hangout from their cell phones in their cars (because the office cubicle was too loud). Another was in China and got up really early in the morning to chat with us.

The flexibility provided by the hangout, and the community it created turned out to be so important that in our exit surveys all the students asked for more hangouts. They asked specifically for more online hangouts, NOT “couldn’t we just meet in person?” What the students wanted was a connection, but it did not need to be in person. In fact, many of our students said they preferred online hangouts because they liked that they could be at home or at work for discussions, and they felt more comfortable and more likely to speak-up in the online hangouts.

This is the most important lesson we learned teaching online this summer. Online teaching can expand the reach of a class, it can expand the number of students taking that class, and it can even make it a bit cheaper for each student to get credit for that class.   Which is to to say: we are undeniably, admittedly and committedly pro online education. But this does not mean that we think it is the panacea for the problems facing university education today.


SMOCS, MOOCs and other animals

MOOCs  (Massive Open Online Course) were originally hailed as one attempt to solve the problem of scale in universities: digitize a few courses, beam out to the world, solve the problem of scale.  One thing this model missed is that the issue with scale is also an issue of engagement. It may be easy to scale content delivery; it is not as easy to scale interaction.  This is one of the main criticisms leveled at MOOCs -- that they are too big and impersonal, and therefore “bad” for education.  The irony is that even on the ground, large research universities have been facing this problem for years, and have not found an adequate solution to it. Cathy Davidson has written about the many issues confronting higher education that cannot be solved simply by scaling up the size of classrooms, be they digital or bricks and mortar.[2]

The current “traditional” model is not sustainable and has already moved far from the ideal of faculty engagement and interaction with students.   Look to any traditional large lecture course and you will see that distance learning has probably already begun somewhere past the third row.

From where we stand in the trenches of teaching while trying to publish, the recent debate over online education feels like a foil for very real problem of scale in higher education. Rising enrollments at public research universities have presented institutions with a pressing problem - how to scale education? The issue of scale is neither new nor minor, and the solution at most universities has been to use armies of graduate student Teaching Assistants or lecturers to teach ever increasing numbers of students.  Ladder rank faculty teach more (more students, more courses), and there is increasing pressure on everyone to accommodate more students and more courses while maintaining research agendas and quality of instruction. The unwritten truth is that there are simply not enough faculty to teach all the students.

This summer, news of the “failure” of the MOOCs got widespread attention when San José State University put its collaboration with EdX on hold.[3] The truth is that MOOCs have yet to fail or not fail -- they are part of the beginnings of a new medium used in education, and as with any innovation the first few attempts are going to be extreme examples, pointing to the potential they can help create.

Woven into the discussion of the “end of MOOCs” is the issue of pure content delivery (“passive learning”) vs. interaction (“active learning” or “engagement”).  There is a persistent belief that since online teaching does not take place in a physical location it is therefore passive, that its digital nature is of lesser quality, and merely delivers content instead of effectively teaching students. This sets up a false dichotomy that online education, because it is digital, leads to poor education. The reality is that the quality of learning and the quality of instruction is as variable online as it in the traditional classroom.

Passive and active learning take place in both traditional and online environments, and both environments have the capacity to be more or less interactive.  The online medium is no more suited for one or the other. There can be great online classes, and there can be terrible ones, just as there are some terrible lecture courses that meet in person on campus.

MOOCs are but one of the many animals that roam the online education jungle – and while a MOOC is a very large and showy animal, it is not the fastest, nimblest, or necessarily the best animal in that jungle.  As our experience teaching online showed us, teaching well online requires significant investment of time, energy, software and hardware. It also requires nimbleness - nimbleness with technology and nimbleness with teaching methodology as well as nimbleness adapting to student’s technological abilities.

The class we described above is for all intents and purposes a scalable managed online course, or a SMOC in the current parlance. We created a hybrid of the analog and the digital, and it worked toward solving many constraints of the large lecture class, without the pretense of openness or massiveness. Our SMOC incorporated significant online interaction and allowed many more students to participate and engage in the course material while interacting with faculty as well. The model requires the help of teaching assistants, but it also requires the teaching faculty to interact more with students in an ever more flexible environment.

SMOCs can play a positive role in solving the scale problem both at the content delivery level and at the interaction level - but they cannot run as packaged courses without faculty involvement, nor should they be free. The simple fact is that the more interaction students have with faculty and with classmates, the better they learn. And the more faculty are valued for this innovation by their institutions, the better it will be for the system.  A SMOC can scale up, but not without plenty of human labor (and therefore money).

In early October of 2013, as we are writing this written, the debate around online learning in higher ed continues and likely will continue for some time. In the meantime, we will continue to teach online. If you are interested, consider taking History 75V at UC Riverside in the Spring. All you need is an Internet connection. And pets are welcome.

[1]Details about the experience of creating an online course and teaching online has been covered in several blogposts by Juliette Levy and Steve Anderson - for Steve Anderson’s posts: http://bit.ly/1b1hQHxhttp://bit.ly/13sDa7chttp://bit.ly/1bMgaD7; for Juliette Levy’s posts: http://bit.ly/13hWVOyhttp://bit.ly/1ccBmT0http://bit.ly/18C6F7i.

[2] “ Schadenfreude for the MOOCs is not joy for the Higher Ed status quo

[3] For example these:  http://aje.me/17bB9tyhttp://slate.me/1499qaLhttp://onforb.es/149SIz2. The first comes from the Al Jazeera English news site, using the San José State example to reinforce the fact that MOOCs fail and that they are a terrible, impersonal way to teach, and that they are designed for profit, and therefore not for education. The second is by Jonathan Rees, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado-Pueblo, who inveighs against MOOCs because they are terribly bad for professors (also for students), but the thrust of his argument is focused on the pedagogical failure of MOOCs and their threat to professors and employment within academia. The third is a business reporter’s rant against critics of MOOCs but from the worst possible perspective, arguing that the positive aspect of MOOCs is that they will destroy academia and put an end to the eternal publication of useless research.