Can they make you teach online?

20 06 2011

That question comes from a conversation my illustrious department chairman and I were having while driving up to Denver International Airport for our second ten-day stint in a row showing teachers historic sites around Boston. The reason he asked me that was apprehension we both have over a distance education summit on our campus that our Provost has called in a few short weeks. The Provost has offered no hints of anything he might be springing on our campus, but I hope you can understand why I might be worried. After all, thanks to the Internet, I can be replaced by starving historians worldwide! And thanks to American labor law, I have next to no rights at work (but then again, you don’t have any either so I guess it’s all good).

That last bit is the reason that I eventually answered Matt’s question in the affirmative. I seem to remember stories of people being switched from American to World History classes just to encourage them to retire. I think forced online teaching could work the same way. After all, if they can eliminate your job by eliminating your department without declaring financial exigency, telling you that you have to teach online might actually seem like an improvement from your perspective.

What seems a more likely course of action, if not at my university then at universities in general, would be that faculty would be given an option to teach online. If you don’t accept that option, then the extra work would be farmed out to starving historians elsewhere. Anything else would be like leaving money on the table to them. Seriously, I think the problem with higher education today is that the average university president has adopted the same attitude towards their work as Ivan Boesky c. 1985. When you can’t tell the difference between public and for-profit education, I think it’s the public universities that have the bigger problems.

So perhaps the better question here would be, “Should they make you teach online?” I think you know already that my answer is “no.” Where do I start with reasons? It’s often dull, there’s no security against cheating, it usually does nothing to foster critical analysis, etc. But Ivan Boesky wouldn’t care about such trivialities. All he’d want to know is whether it would make any money.

However, I say “no” on those grounds too. The internet has disrupted many established in its relatively short history. However, in most cases those industries have suffered because it was possible to build a better mousetrap. Someone give me one advantage of online education from an educational standpoint. No, the ability to learn while still in your pajamas doesn’t count because that’s not educational.

If all the financial benefits of online education continue to flow to the university and the students continue to get no educational benefit from the endeavor, this whole house of cards simply won’t last in the long run. The students are going to demand a better education because employers are going to demand better educated graduates.

So I think I’m going to become a conscientious objector – an online education Quaker.* If there’s ever a draft, I’ll go to prison because I don’t want to participate in a system that’s misguided at best and inherently corrupt at worst. Unfortunately, war sometimes makes leaders do stupid things. Here’s hoping our university’s leaders are only at the preparedness stage.

* This doesn’t mean I’m opposed to online elements in face-to-face courses, what we call “hybrid courses” on my campus. I think the Internet should supplement existing classes, not replace them

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22 responses

21 06 2011
Middle Seaman

The issue I want to address in response to your Objection is: who controls the university and why. The question is more acute for me since I teach at a private university (non-profit). Traditionally, the president, the provost and the dean represent the chain of command, influence and direction. That is wrong. That is the reason that we are run as employees of corporations.

A university is a partnership among three groups: administration, faculty and students. Clearly, faculty and students are a constant while administration, especially in the form of president, provost and deans, are temporary visitors. Why should the visitors decide where we are going and what are our goal?. Online teaching is only one aspect the where and what.

Sadly, American faculty are sheep. They seldom organize and seldom protest. (When they do, e.g. Summers, it’s because their ass is threatened.) There are many daily decisions the visitors make I find objectable and many I find as stupid and inapt, but all I do is fight as an individual; that doesn’t offer much leverage. I did well in almost 30 years and got many trained to my tendencies. Yet, I have a new dean who is stupider than wonder bread and I clash with him even when I don’t intend to.

Bottom line: Let charge the administration and take control of the university; that’s the way to go.

21 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

There’s a leap here from teaching online to outsourcing your jobs to “starving historians worldwide”, so on behalf of the Worldwide Union of Starveling Online Charlatans waiting to snatch your students the moment they’re uploaded to the cloud, I just have to ask: are we really the problem?

This seems to me the flipside of my occasional worry that the risk from online courses is online courseware, which will be produced in the US and shipped out as cheap foreign content to the places where the rest of us are trying to create curriculum that is sensitive to our local contexts.

Neither of these are in themselves sufficient reason not to embrace the academic potential of online learning, in my view. So in response to your question, advantages of online from an educational standpoint are led by the opportunity for review and reflection, which isn’t a particular strength in live conversations, but which is surely the bedrock of critical analysis. Plus students read what other students write. Students not working in their first language have a much more equitable chance to join the conversation. Students come back to an idea hours or weeks later, that might just have floated by in a class conversation. Here’s a weird one: if people are writing in public every week, they seem less likely to plagiarise in assessments. Perhaps it’s obvious to them that you’ll be able to tell the difference.

Plus the students who can’t make it onto the exchange program are at last getting the chance to learn in classes with people from all over the world, yup, even taught by instructors from somewhere else.

Obviously, it’s also dull. But seriously, have you never sat in a dull face to face conversation and amused yourself imagining all the participants wearing exotic fruit on their heads. Is that just me?

21 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

MS:

I’m all for organization, but I’m not as optimistic about you as to whether it can change administrations. I’d settle for not being run over with a new initiative every other week.

MfD:

There is indeed a better opportunity to read other students’ work online, but can’t you review and reflect after the live conversation is over? Think of all the sweat and blood that goes into designing a good online course (although we in America are mostly stuck with bad ones). The benefits strike me as comparatively meager.

In the end, what’s the payoff if you can do most of the same things simpler and a lot of them better? You all Down Under have greater geographic issues than we do [Is there even a college in Alice Springs?] Here I wonder what the point of reinventing the wheel is if our existing mousetrap works pretty well as it is.

21 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I do think that we have some intransigent problems with geography here, and maybe these make us (ahem) more open minded to the benefits of finding new ways of doing things. But let’s face it, you have a space program, and that’s got to come from some adventurous belief that mousetraps can be upgraded, surely?

I agree, review and reflection can happen after a live conversation, but when I think back on all the live conversations I had last week, how many do I really remember, and what are the types of conversation that survive the cull of memory? I’m not saying I want my whole life online, but I really can see value in being able to go back over things said in class and rethink them (or my reaction to them), and I can see that students benefit from this.

My thought is that nothing good happens when all this is a) made compulsory and b) made in the interests of cost saving. So I do love the phrase “stupider than wonder bread” and plan to say it frequently. That’s the target.

21 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

MfD:

It would be easier for me to be opened-minded if there weren’t so many people out there who are stupider than Wonder Bread. I don’t think my administration is, thank goodness, but there are enough online education charlatans out there to make me extremely nervous.

21 06 2011
What we’ve got here … | Music for Deckchairs

[...] particularly in the case of for-profiteering initiatives.  More or Less Bunk is asking “Can They Make You Teach Online?”, and Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured describes the same moment as “Selling My Soul [...]

26 06 2011
Historyguy

I often like your posts, but have to take issue with this one. In the interest of being up-front, I am a full-time faculty member at an online, for-profit university. But I’ve spent the bulk of my career teaching at more traditional schools, from Research 1’s, to liberal arts colleges, to community colleges.

What I have to disagree with is your characterization of online education. You stated:

So perhaps the better question here would be, “Should they make you teach online?” I think you know already that my answer is “no.” Where do I start with reasons? It’s often dull, there’s no security against cheating, it usually does nothing to foster critical analysis, etc. But Ivan Boesky wouldn’t care about such trivialities. All he’d want to know is whether it would make any money.

Unfortunately, this demonstrates that you are either ill-informed about how online education is done today or that you (like many in academia) have an agenda of protective self-interest. I don’t know you, so I cannot say which of these is true, and I won’t speculate.

First, “it’s often dull.” On what do you base this? And in comparison to what…a classroom lecture? How many students have you seen sleeping through lectures? Do you know what resources are available to enhance online education today, making it a vibrant and growing form? Apparently not.

Second, “there’s no security against cheating.” Really? This is where I can see that you certainly don’t have a handle on how online education happens. Having been in both worlds for extended periods, online platforms catch cheaters with relative ease, thanks to modern technology. How does that compare to a 300 student class taking an exam in a lecture hall?

Finally, “it usually does nothing to foster critical analysis.” Again, I ask you on what you base this opinion. I’ve found it just as easy to give the kind of feedback to foster critical analysis. The online discussion board is a perfect forum to use a Socratic method of questioning that results in students analyzing their answers and each other’s, and is a much more effective place to engage in knowledge-building than a conventional classroom.

I have no problem with people questioning online education. But I do have a problem with people demonstrating both a bias and a lack of knowledge when they do.

26 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

Historyguy:

My arguments about online education are hardly original. They come primarily from two places: 1) Margaret Soltan’s excellent blogging on the subject over at University Diaries.” Really, I couldn’t recommend the whole archive there more. 2) The other is my own research on the subject which I did when I was presented the opportunity to teach online myself. While I do not speak from direct experience with the subject, I think I am pretty well informed. The above post is glib about my unoriginal critique of online education because I’ve handled those points in greater depth elsewhere. It was only the compulsion part that was at all new.

With respect to the part of the post that you’ve quoted back to me, the operative word there is “often.” I know that it is possible to put up an interesting and informative online history course. I also know that in the current financial climate there is almost no incentive to do so. Kudos to you for taking your pedagogical responsibilities seriously. I don’t believe that everyone else teaching online, especially in a for-profit environment, cares nearly as much as you do.

One more thing, and I apologize for not making this point more clearly above: The kind of cheating I meant to invoke above is not plagiarism, but having someone else do your online work for you. The point is originally Soltan’s, but I believe both she and I have never seen an adequate response to that critique. So how do you know that the people taking your online courses are really the people who signed up? [After all, on the Internet nobody knows that you're a dog.] Inquiring minds want to know.

26 06 2011
Historyguy

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful reply. I appreciate your nuancing your ideas, as one of the largest problems I see in the dialogue that takes place about this topic is the type of blanket statement that paint all online institutions, or even all for-profit universities, with one broad brush. If a person were to make similarly broad statements about traditional colleges and universities, ignoring the fundamental differences between institutions or types of institutions, they would be lambasted. Somehow is acceptable when professors who should know better start in on for-profits.

Yes, I know what you’re saying isn’t original to you, and I’ll be happy to look at both your writings and Soltan’s blog. I’d love to be a part of a continuing dialogue between online and traditional colleges and universities. Unfortunately, too much of the time what gets said is polemical and, as I’ve stated, ill-informed.

Just as your ideas on this aren’t necessarily unique, neither am I unique among professors at online and/or for-profit universities in my approach to pedagogy and critical thought. I realize there are some institutions – some very large ones – that don’t approach this with the same rigor or commitment. However, I’m fortunate to be at an institution that for over 40 years has been committed to fostering critical thought and positive social change through its programs. There are others, some of which I’ve been associated with at times in my career, that share this commitment, but I’ve never been at a university where its more a part of what the institution is about: it’s the core value.

I and many of my colleagues were as disappointed with the lack of rigor in the recent set of rules put out by the Department of Education as many professors at traditional institutions. Of course, I would add that those same rules should to be applied to traditional institutions as well. I’d like to see the substandard institutions weeded out of both areas. In fact, I find the whole for-profit/non-profit dichotomy to be slippery. Do you think that private “non-profit” institutions are any less concerned about the size of their sometimes multi-billion dollar endowment funds than for-profits are about their profit margins? But I digress…sorry (but not really).

You raise a valid point about not being able to guarantee that students are doing their own work. I suppose it is possible that a friend, a partner, etc. could be a phantom student. However, this would take an extremely large commitment on the part of that person to complete all of the work required to receive a high grade in our courses. Just doing an assignment or two wouldn’t really work, as a notable variation in the quality or character of a student’s work would be just as much a tip off to a professor at an online university as at a traditional institution. I don’t believe that students turning in work done by others is any less of a problem at traditional institutions as it is in online institutions (I should know, based on many years teaching in both settings).

Thanks again for opening the dialogue. Of course, you’re welcome to express your feelings about online education, but I hope I’ve at least planted a seed of knowledge that your earlier comments don’t necessarily apply to all online institutions.

Best regards,
Steve

27 06 2011
Dan Allosso

This has been a fascinating discussion. I’ve been wondering about this from a slightly different perspective (ABD, looking at a very bleak job market). I’d be inclined to challenge the traditional divide between learning for enrichment/career enhancement and accredited “education,” whether in person or virtual. My question is, can they stop us from teaching online?

27 06 2011
More information than you require. « More or Less Bunk

[...] also found it interesting that this post about the possibility of compulsory online education has gotten a lot of attention. I’ll try [...]

28 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Thanks for the link to Margaret Soltan’s collection. I don’t know, though. “Online stinks and everyone knows it”, or “Online and cheating. They go together like a wink and a smile.” Snappy, to the point, etc. But I’m not sure that the jury’s in on this one. I think there are some quietly tightening constraints that are creating bad versions of both online and offline student experiences. Boredom and bad teaching go together like a wink and a smile, let’s face it. Overenrolled courses and classrooms have an odour that isn’t entirely metaphorical. Cheating can happen in all sorts of circumstances—wherever students submit typed papers, anyone can be the author of them, and we do see this all the time.

Is it possible just to put in a plea that the term “online” shouldn’t be used as a shorthand if the issue is “for-profit”?

28 06 2011
Historyguy

Jonathan,

At your suggestion, I’ve looked at Margaret Soltan’s blog, and I was extraordinarily disappointed by what I found there. This is a case study in what I’m talking about: reactive posts that wreak of self importance and ideological bias. Taking single articles and generalizing their contents to the entire online university sector. It simply beggars the mind that a professor can blog in the interest of academic rigor, and yet use absolutely no standards of academic rigor when they do so. Sadly disappointing, and yet sadly typical.

28 06 2011
In online education, nobody knows you’re a dog. « More or Less Bunk

[...] above, of course, is one of the most famous New Yorker cartoons of all time. The discussion on this post has made me realize that the same principle behind that cartoon applies to online education [...]

28 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

Historyguy,

One story is an anecdote. Multiple stories that make the same point are evidence for an argument. If you want me to accept your assessment of your industry, you’ll have to prove to me that your experience is more typical than what Soltan has found.

28 06 2011
That’s right, we’re not from Texas … | Music for Deckchairs

[...] the iceberg of online learning, these are voices that perhaps ought to be heard, even if they only constitute an anecdote (that’s for you, More or Less [...]

29 06 2011
Historyguy

Jonathan,

You raise an important point here. Both sides of this story are being “proven” by anecdotes. But we need more than a greater number of anecdotes to prove the point. Certainly, the stories in such bastions as the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education are predominantly coming from one ideological perspective, so it shouldn’t be too surprising (although disappointing) that they’re presenting the negative side of things.

It seems to me that we need a more thoroughgoing study of online education, focusing on a plurality of institutions, before we can make blanket assertions of the sort that Soltan (and the sensationalistic newspaper articles that she cites) are throwing around so cavalierly as “proof”. Better still, a comparison alongside traditional colleges and universities. Sort of a US News and World Report list of “best” (and worst) in different sectors of education. Then we can move beyond the hyperbole that characterizes this “discussion”.

I am a member of the assessment/HLC self study committee for my division, so I know that we have the data to back up our claims. I hope other online and traditional universities would share their data as well. At least some of us in the online education arena are not afraid of such scrutiny.

Thanks again,
Steve

29 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

Steve:

If you had read Soltan as long enough as I have, you’d know that she is far too unpredictable to fit into an easy ideological category (which to me is one of her virtues). With respect to the bias of her sources, all I’ll say this early in the morning is that just because someone has an axe to grind does not necessarily make them wrong.

How then can you best make your case? I’m not even looking for studies here. Lining Soltan’s anecdotes up against your anecdotes (not the plural there) would be an exercise that might lead us all in the direction of deeper understanding.

29 06 2011
Dan Allosso

I don’t see how a comparison of anecdotes and claims would be more than a pissing match. I looked at Soltan’s blog, too. It was heavy on bold, large-type claims, light on facts. Maybe her other work is brilliant — I did notice that her blog in Inside Higher Ed seems like it’s written by someone much more thoughtful. For those of us who come to her lately, though, the oracular tone of her blog announcements don’t carry any authority. And they don’t encourage the new reader to get to know her as well as you do, Jonathan, to see how deep she really is.

So far, the thing that seems to be missing in this discussion is consideration of the needs and interests of students. We’re getting all wrapped around the axle on the question of profit (forgetting that $$ isn’t the only form of “profit” an institution could be chasing), and ignoring the social and economic issues that are driving students to choose online courses for some of their educational needs. A lot of people are also choosing to home-school their kids. Maybe looking at what they hope to GAIN by changing their approaches to education would give us some clues about how the academy ought to respond. We DO want to respond to our users’ needs, right?

29 06 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Yes we do! I’ve spent the past week reading student reflections on their online learning experience. I encourage students to be critical when their experience has been negative, and they are. But there’s a pretty even mix of good and bad reactions, and I always learn something new.

It occurs to me that we very, very rarely ask students to scrutinise their face to face learning experiences in the same way–that’s the big unasked question here. So when students write about their online experience, I’ve noticed that they will also open up about how they feel about face to face classes, and this is as much of a revelation as anything they say about what’s just happened online.

I wonder if we need to draw a distinction between what’s been emerging from educational literature for a while, and what’s currently causing a dust storm in the mainstream education media and blogosphere? Why has this dust storm blown up? Why now?

23 02 2012
On the road to our glorious all-online higher ed utopia. « More or Less Bunk

[...] if they can make you use Blackboard what can’t they make you do? A long time ago, I asked, “Can they make you teach online?” Since my answer then was yes, I’m quite certain that they can make you teach on Blackboard [...]

6 09 2012
My classroom is my platform: A manifesto. « More or Less Bunk

[...] let me link to two older posts here so that you can see what led me down this mental path. In June 2011, my illustrious department chair asked me whether our administration could make us teach online. [...]

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