The Devil is in the details.

20 07 2011

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.




6 responses

20 07 2011

Hi Jonathan! Great post.

That Decker guy — is he slick, or just narrow? If he’s a Wharton MBA, I wouldn’t rule out either. Anyway, here’s what’s wrong with his claim “that outcome assessments showed the two versions of the educational experience to be indistinguishable.”

Outcomes assessment begins with a severe reduction of the varied, complex, and subtle ways in which students benefit from a course. The variety of educational (and personal!) benefits of a course get reduced to a manageable number of specified Learning Outcomes, whiile the subtlety and complexity of what students actually learn in a course get reduced to only those things that can be easily and objectively measured by an “assessment instrument.”

Next comes a logical fallacy: the claim that, because a *reduced* version of X is the same as a *reduced* version of Y, the *original* X is the same as the *original* Y.

Crude example: Human beings can be reduced to a list indicating the proportion of chemical elements of which they are composed. A human being is composed of 39 percent carbon, 26 percent oxygen, etc. But no one would claim that every combination of the same elements in the same proportions is a human being. It’s just way more complicated than that!

Yet this is the very sort of mindlessly reductive claim that is made by apologists for distance ed. And it’s no surprise that they do so, because it is precisely this sort of reduction that allows them to assert the equivalence of distance courses and F2F courses.

20 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Well, OK. But speaking of devils and details, and given that I was reading the same article yesterday (whiling away the time in another Big Corporate LMS vendor demonstration), I think it’s not entirely fair to overlook the conclusions of the study, which is that hybrid courses do as well as face to face courses, but that “Unlike online courses, however, hybrid courses do not offer complete freedom from geographic and temporal constraint, and thus do not hold out the same promise for dramatically improved access to postsecondary education. Accordingly, online learning should continue to have an important role in community college education. Perhaps the most important question to consider at this point, then, is: How can online learning be improved in order to reach the same level of student success exhibited by face-to-face learning?”

In other words, I think what this study is testing is whether or not online learning is currently meeting the multiple expectations hurled at it, for both good reasons (improving access) and bad reasons (stack ’em high! sell’ em cheap!) as well as really awful stupid reasons, which come from both well-intentioned proselytizers (it will change your life!) and corporate charlatans (it will change your life!). It’s not about whether or not online is fundamentally doomed to be bad, which seems to be the direction you’re taking here.

So I think it’s actually a boost for online learning that this study has so thoroughly demonstrated that merely hopping online does nothing, nada, zilch, zero for either students or faculty, and may in fact set us all back. What we need is good online learning. And I’m really coming to believe this could be in the gift of the edupunks.

20 07 2011
Jonathan Rees


What if the motivation for online learning makes it inherently corrupt? After all, nobody is saying, “Let’s get online in order to improve pedagogy!” It’s the economics of higher education that are out of whack, not the pedagogy. Even the cries for the assessment of everything are ultimately motivated by money. Why should anyone care about building a better mousetrap if the one we have isn’t really broken?

21 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I’m saying it, though. I’m saying “let’s keep doing some stuff online because it does improve pedagogy, sometimes, and it does improve access, sometimes, and it does enable us to keep track of students we might otherwise lose, sometimes, and it does create new opportunities in terms of global connections, sometimes.” I do also think some universities are saying this in quite a principled ways. Certainly all the LMS vendors are saying it, although I’m not sure they mean it, or at least, what they mean by it.

But here’s the thing. The mousetrap we have works fine, but only so long as nothing about the mouse changes. But the mouse has upsized and retooled and no longer behaves in entirely mouselike ways.

So we don’t need a better mousetrap. We just need mousetrap options.

21 07 2011
Dan Allosso

In addition to being unhappy about the absence of jobs, I’m the father of two college-age kids. From that perspective, let me say: the system as it stands is broken. It is too expensive. College educations no longer correlate, in many cases, with careers for graduates. And in many places, face to face classes are taught by faculty who resent having to be in front of students, because that is clearly not the institution’s focus, and that’s not where the glory is.

Not in ALL cases, of course, and maybe that’s the point. Why are we arguing as if face to face is one, uniform thing? And online one, uniform other?

21 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Why indeed? I’ve been following the discussion of claims of college inefficiencies over at CHE and it strikes me that this has a similar rhythm: view something in the worst possible light (“25 hours weekly for a 49-week year, or 35 hours weekly for a 35-week year.”) and attribute it to everything else (rough summary: all college teachers wouldn’t recognise a real job if they sat on one.)

So while we’re getting busy on mousetrap R & D, we do need to beware Greeks bearing The Latest Great Big Multifeatured MouseTrap That Will Solve All Your Institutional Problems Going Forward, as it’s likely that some of our most important institutional issues are local, and we can already solve them more adroitly.

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