Uh oh. It seems that Historiann linked here, which means that traffic at this blog is in the process of quadrupling for the day. While my first inclination is to go back and check my last ten posts for typos, I’ll just note that evidence of the current hobbyhorse of mine to which she is referring can be found here.
Conveniently, I’m interested in the same article that she is, which I saw yesterday too. If you’re not arriving here from her place, it’s about the tendency of those taking online courses to drop out at a greater rate than in those closes given face-to-face. However, I didn’t really think of it as interesting until I saw this early this morning:
I had made an off-hand (i.e., unresearched) claim that online higher education is simply inferior to a traditional, in-person experience, and used Franklin (which offers both traditional and online versions of several of its undergraduate and graduate programs) as an example of the difference. Dr. Decker wrote to me, insisting that I was wrong, and that outcome assessments showed the two versions of the educational experience to be indistinguishable. I found his adamant assertion both interesting (Dr. Decker is a graduate of Grinnell College and a Wharton M.B.A.—you can’t get more face-to-face than that) and provocative. He clearly underwent a conversion of sorts, and he’s now a firm believer in online learning. Grateful for his prompt, I decided to do my homework and make a more considered argument. Maybe, as a humanist, I’ve just been socialized to assume that traditional pedagogy is superior to any teaching and learning that could be done online. What I learned has at least tempered my skepticism.
That’s dated from July 12th, about a week before this new study came out. Famous last words, eh? I should note that the author of those words, Frank Donoghue, is also the author of one of the best books on the plight of today’s professor ever written. It just goes to show that even the best of us can get swallowed up by the hype.
In order to avoid such a fate, I’d suggest it’s time to ask, once again, is our children learning? When attempting to answer that question, always remember that the Devil is in the details.
I suspect that the studies that Donoghue has seen meet all the expectations that today’s educational assessment experts want in a piece of propaganda. I’m guessing they’ve been peer-reviewed; that there’s a control group; that both groups have been given the same surveys and multiple-choice tests; that there’s a lot of math involved.
How exactly does this apply to what I do all day? The only tests I give my students are in survey class and even they are all essay tests. How should I quantify good analysis? Most of my classes involve extensive, face-to-face discussions about documents and books. After those discussions, my students write papers geared specifically towards those books. Working together in small groups, we discuss those papers extensively in class, sometimes over the course of multiple drafts. If I’ve assigned a research paper, I’ll walk them over to the library myself, where are expert librarians show them where to find sources.
I can’t wait for someone to explain to me how all of that can be done better online. Better yet, I can’t wait to see the study comparing my approach to the entirely online version of the same class. My guess is that anyone who cared enough to duplicate that kind of pedagogy online would find their students dropping out of the course like flies, particularly since it seems they have a tendency to do so already.