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Saturday, March 10, 2012

What is all the fuss about online education? Do those who are designing it understand it?

I have a story I want to tell about online education but first it needs a small preface.
These days I am working on the possibility of building online master’s degree programs with various universities which would be financed by Wall Street.
The reaction to my ideas about online master’s degree programs has changed a great deal in the last ten years. When I offered to do this for Carnegie Mellon (and built quite a few of them) I was asked by the provost if I wanted to put golden arches over the campus. (By which he meant “over a billion served.”) When I said "sure" he said that CMU wanted to preserve its elite brand name and would not offer what I built on line. (They still offer them in one way or another, but usually face to face.) These days I hear they are re-thinking this point of view.
I left CMU and then went to Trump University which said they wanted to build the next online university, but apparently Mr. Trump hadn’t calculated that this would cost actual money to do, so that “university” never went anywhere.
Then I met the folks at La Salle University in Barcelona, which to make a long story short, now offers two online masters that we built for them.
The Spanish economy being what it is, I figured it was time to talk to Wall St. and to talk to universities that would like to offer masters degrees on a worldwide basis, especially if they didn’t have to put up any money to do it. So, we have formed a new company XTOL to do just that, More on that here:
Now to my story. 
The university world has changed. Whereas ten years ago no one cared about on line education, now it seems that everyone does. Because of XTOL, I was visiting a well known university to talk about working with them. At this university, the decision had already been made for faculty to start to meet and discuss how to put their courses on line.
I met with a very reasonable faculty member at this school. I showed him the MBA program we had built for La Salle and it became clear that he realized that his faculty was never going to be able to build that kind of thing.
He wrote to me a few days later after his faculty had met:
“I'm curious to get your take on a statement I heard recently from a faculty member:  "Moreover we still know very little about how students learn in online settings or about what models of online teaching work well for different types of content and student."  Do you think this statement is true?”
I replied that while those of us who had been working in the trenches for the last ten years certainly know the answers to these questions, his faculty would have a good time debating them (and many others) for several more years, before it actually did anything.
What is it about on line education that people don’t understand? As a guide, here are ten things to know about online education, all of which require some explanation:  
  1. Online education has to involve teaching
  2. Online education can and therefore should be part of an actual experience
  3. Online education facilitates learning by doing
  4. Online education should not be the same old course that is now on line
  5. Online education should involved the use of video from experts but that video must be delivered just in time
  6. The subject matter of online education needs to be defined differently than before because the same old university politics are dead
  7. Taking an online course can be a seriously lonely experience
  8. The designers of online course ought not be professors
  9. Online courses need to lead to degrees
  10. Courses are the problem in the first place
So, let’s take them one at a time.
  1. Online education has to involve teaching
What do I mean by this? it is all too simple to take a course and put it on line. It is especially easy if that course is in computer science. In CS students learn to actually do something. So you can give them programs to write and it is easy to check if the program did what they were supposed to do. So this is why we hear such a racket these days about some the CS courses that Stanford is offering. Hundreds of thousand of students -- oh my. But are there say 100,000 teachers for these students? Of course not. 
Here is a review of one of those courses that I found in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by someone who says he is affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.  

The CS101 class focuses on Python and consists of seven one-week units. We just completed Unit 2, which focused on procedures, if-then statements, and loops. It’s been an interesting experience so far.
The pedagogy of the class is quite sound and well-designed. Each unit so far has consisted of 20-30 short lectures (averaging around 2-3 minutes in length) on YouTube, many of which are followed by quizzes that are either multiple choice (think: clicker questions) or exercises in writing code in an interpreter.  The main body of student work comes from weekly homework sets, which consist primarily of code-writing exercises that are graded by scripts.
Maybe it’s my lack of programming skill, but I’m surprised at how rigorous the course has been. It’s not a cakewalk at all for people who are relative beginners — I’ve seen more than one “farewell” post on the discussion boards from students who just can’t keep up with the pace and are dropping out. The quizzes, although they entail no risk to my grade, have been quite challenging times, as have some of the homework problems. (One problem from Unit 1 — to write a procedure that rounds a number to the nearest integer using only string methods and basic arithmetic — took me multiple sessions to figure out.)
Or, to put this another way, he could have used a good teacher, and like most professors, he knows nothing about sound pedagogy. 
But massive numbers for online means eliminating teachers. Try eliminating teachers in a course where coming up with your own ideas and thinking and explaining is at the root of the subject matter.
  1. Online education can and therefore should be part of an actual experience

What is missing in most, but not all, education, is the lack of actual experiences. Computers offer the possibility of building simulated experiences. This is what makes online education worth doing. It can be a challenge and a real change with respect to what passes for education. It should eliminate lectures, not provide them online. There is really no reason to do online education if we can’t use the new medium to change the old message.
  1. Online education facilitates learning by doing
Scholars from Plato to Dewey have pointed out that we only learn by doing. The fact that universities have for the most part ignored this does not mean they can continue to do so, not in the online world in any case. Computer Science is often taught using learning by doing. Even so, when I built the online CMU courses, which were in Computer Science, many (but not all) of the CMU faculty objected because they wanted to continue to teach by lecturing.  The amount of actual teaching I wanted them to do seemed to them like it would be a lot of work.

  1. Online education should not be the same old course that is now on line
The actual goal ought not be to put courses on line. Courses are the problem in the first place in education. Taking five courses in five different subjects simultaneously fits the lives of faculty just fine since they don’t have to teach much. For students it is a disjointed set of experiences that don’t relate to each other. This model of education needs to be re-thought. Putting degree programs on line makes sense, but those programs should be a series of experiences, each of which builds upon the one before it.
  1. Online education should involved the use of video from experts but that video must be delivered just in time
This means no online lectures. Experts should tell stories just in time to students as they need them. That expert story telling should be in short videos.
  1. The subject matter of online education needs to be defined differently than before because the same old university politics are dead
Students need to take one from column A and one from column B in order to satisfy university degree requirements. Those requirements exists because every faculty member wants his or her specialty to be required so that they will have courses to teach. This concept of requirements by political consensus makes no sense in an online world unless you actually let the faculty of the department design the degree program, in which case you will get the same old stuff, but this time it will be online.
  1. Taking an online course can be a seriously lonely experience
My team and I have been doing this for a long time. We used to build simulations where one person interacted with a computer and nothing else. It is a lonely experience. Now we have students work in teams with mentors. Everyone is happier.
  1. The designers of online course ought not be professors
While professors all think they can design on line courses it really doesn’t work like that. You would have had to have thought seriously about learning, which is typically not the specialty of most professors. They just teach the way they were taught. Also you would have to know something about what you can and cannot easily do on a computer, which is again, why computer science courses are the first courses being put up at Stanford. Without a deep knowledge of learning and computers, faculty members will simply recreate what they have always done. It will be online, and it won’t matter.
  1. Online courses need to lead to degrees
Students want certification. That is why they go to school. Some want to learn but they are in the minority.
I saw this the other day from Cameron Wilson of the ACM:
Just to give you some sense of how the news around the Stanford/MIT online offerings is generating interest, I was at a Senate hearing yesterday on education and the economy:
It wasn't the main thrust of the hearing, but the President of the
Committee for Economic Development raised the discussion around
Stanford and MIT offerings as transformative for higher
education. This sparked clear interest among the Senators when they
heard the scope of students involved in these courses. Senator Enzi
engaged with the witnesses on this issue. It was one of the few new
points during the hearing as most of discussion was focused on the
same sets of education issues that have dominated debates for 30+
It seems the Stanford offerings have confused everyone about educational change. Not too odd they that also confused the U.S. Senate. 

  1. Courses are the problem in the first place
I will make it real simple. As long as we hear that courses are being put on line, no matter how many students have signed up, nothing important is happening. When we hear that whole new degree programs that offer experiences mentored by real teachers are being put on line, it will be time to take notice.


Steve said...

Roger. Really awesome set of cogent observations, though I'd expect nothing less:) There are so many hints and keys here that get directly to the problems with education and with corporate training efforts.

We try to use new mediums to convey the same old messages. We assume that teaching, lecturing and simply providing information are all the same thing. We haphazardly throw "curriculums" and "courses" into the wind and don't sensibly match sequence or consider the benefits or detriments of the experience as a whole. All of this is wrong and it's held in place by archaic political systems of dogmatic expectations.

Thanks! Loved it.


Terry said...

I am interested in teaching online classes so I signed up for one in my field at a college that has a large online program. I thought it would be a good idea to experience one as a student before I starting learning how to design such courses myself.

The syllabus wasn't available until the day the class started so I eagerly awaited that day. When it finally arrived I went to the class LMS page and retrieved the syllabus. The entire class, week after week, consisted of "read chapter x and email the instructor your answers to the questions at the end of the chapter."

There was no attempt to create a community among the students. No interaction with the instructor other than her responses (if any) to your answers. There were no assignments that required students to engage in any activities other than reading the book.

As far as I could see, it was nothing more than a more expensive way to provide a correspondence class.