When the cat’s away…

18 08 2011

In the three and a half years or so that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never had a guest post…until now. Britney Titus graduated from CSU-Pueblo last spring, and will be starting our history MA program next week. [Yes, we’ve had that talk.]* What we on the faculty love most about her is her infectious enthusiasm for history and learning. You can actually see it spread from her to other students in class during discussions.

One sign of that enthusiasm is her willingness to read this blog voluntarily. Britney has been sending me the occasional e-mail on various topics posted here, but I don’t think she’s ever commented. When I got an incredibly long one earlier today, I asked her to adapt it into this post. Take it away Britney…

**********

When it comes to the online education debate, it seems as though one of the most important factors has been left out in the discussion: the student. What a student needs and wants has largely been determined by administrators, who often have the preconceived notion of online education being the next big thing that will attract even more students to their university. They fail to realize what the student really wants, and, more importantly, how online courses are going to affect the student’s overall educational experience.

I have a friend who is attending a college based in Colorado for her master’s program, but she takes a lot of online courses. She brought up a good point to me the other day. Her school offers all of its courses online, so she has students from Massachusetts who are taking the same online course as her right now. The problem, she said, is not only the fact that there is no personal connection with people she will never see (making the discussions somewhat awkward because there is no common ground between people that live on opposite ends of the country), but also that there is really no authoritative body when taking an online class.

Sure the professor can get online later and say, “oh this is right and that is wrong,” but while they are engaging in the discussion they are all fighting and talking about things out of left field because there is no professor actually there. My friend says she does not get anything out of the discussions because there is no guidance or direction for what they are talking about. The professor does start out the discussion with a question, but by the end, the students have ended up so far off topic that they do not even realize the objective behind the discussion, let alone actually learn anything from it. It is not so much that the online education environment does not have the possibilities for discussion, but the discussions are misguided with the absence of an actual educated professor being present to direct them. They only conclude with everyone being confused about what the correct answer is, which they will probably find out five or six hours later and by that time they have already forgot what most of the discussion included.

What is even more disheartening is what the students are learning in the end. I asked my friend how she was doing in the class grade-wise and her response of, “I have an ‘A’, but I don’t know why,” immediately infuriated me and propelled me to write this post. Not only is my friend not learning anything in the course, she is not receiving the benefits and joys of learning. Being a student myself, I thrive on the feeling I get when I have worked so hard to get that ‘A’ and can look back on five months and say to myself, “wow I learned so much.” The fact that my friend is not only spending countless hours on pointless discussions, but also not understanding the objectives behind the learning demonstrates the ineffectiveness of that online course.

What scares me even more than my friend’s experience is the idea that this environment is beginning to trickle down to secondary schools. I noticed recently that my old high school district is offering K-12 education online. If kids are going to start online education that early, what will make them want to go to an actual college later if they’re already sick of online learning? I am frankly a little exhausted both at the collegiate and lower levels by administrators deciding what students want. Do they go out and actually ask, “Do you need/want an online alternative”? In K-12, it is the adults making the decisions for these kids. Yet, how are they ever going to experience the passion and personality of discussions in the classroom if all they do is grow up in cyberspace?

A log off button simply cannot replace the act of students walking out of the classroom still talking about the discussion that took place ten minutes ago among their peers and professor. At least some students, despite administrative interference, really don’t want that option anyway, even if it includes learning while in their pajamas.

* By the way, if you happen to teach in a history department with a Ph.D. program that can actually place people in tenure track jobs, have I got a transfer student for you (in about two years)!


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12 responses

19 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Great post, really interesting to read. I don’t disagree at all with the way that you characterise your friend’s experience and as a teacher I just wish these things didn’t happen.

But I can send a small reassurance that there are just as many efforts to keep students front and centre in the decision-making process about the best mix of face to face and online classes in a regular degree. (An online degree is a whole other thing.) As I’ve written about in my own blog, my institution is developing both a new strategy in this area, and we’re evaluating our central online learning system. Students are actively and closely involved in both processes. You’re right that we can’t figure out what the whole university community needs without asking the whole university community.

In the end, our best way forward will always involve creating choice, rather than limiting it.

19 08 2011
Julia stiles

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19 08 2011
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I feel bad about kicking Britney’s excellent post off the top spot on this blog, I do think this kind of hysteria needs to be addressed quickly and […]

19 08 2011
Britney Titus

MfD:

I am glad to hear that your University keeps the students involved in the online education discussion. However, the only thing that is truly lacking, even if the students are involved in the discussion, I think, is the knowledge behind the choices they are given. What I mean by that is I hope the students are well aware of what taking an online course means. So many like my friend get attracted to the “bells and whistles” of what an online course (i.e. able to do it at convenience and in pajamas for instance) offers, but they often get surprised in the end when they haven’t learned a lot and feel like it has been a waste of time. I hope that students, given the choice, know what those choices entail and then can make an educated decision on what will be most beneficial.

19 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Britney

Perhaps the choices don’t always entail the same things that you describe, any more than entering a lecture hall guarantees an enriching experience. But one thing that we can do is take extra care to seek student feedback on courses, and to let that be part of the public profile of the course.

But you’re also entirely right about what attracts students, and this is really hard to change. I typically spend the first three weeks of a class that I teach with lectures but everything else online (all class discussion, particularly) waving my arms trying to get across to the students that this will be very hard, it will challenge and unsettle them not to come to class, that convenience is the wrong reason etc. etc. and still they come, precisely because convenience is something they need in order to survive financially.

Some students do learn much better in a classroom, but how can we best protect the standards and requirements for online spaces for those students who learn better that way, do you think?

22 08 2011
Britney Titus

MfD:

I think that is the million dollar question to be honest with you and I am not sure if it can be answered. It would be a great idea for online education to adhere to the standards and requirements that are present in an actual face to face course. However, the possibility of that happening is very slim to me because, as Dr. Rees said in his later post, a professor is not going to be present for every second of the discussion or for every second that the student is in fact logged on. This leads to the problem of misguidance in the discussions and lack of authority concerning knowledge.

Thus, it seems that the problem does not lie in the attempt to apply the standards and requirements to the online education environment, but rather the structure itself. The time it takes for replies and the overall lack of professor presence are, to me, the essential problems of that structure. In my opinion, these problems, even if it is an uninteresting lecture, are not present in an actual face to face course.

23 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Hi Britney

This is genuinely helpful to me: you have focused right down on a key issue that I think hasn’t come up in many discussions of online learning to date. My question in return is this: at what level do you think we should start to expect students to spend some of their learning time more independently so that there can be a mix of peer learning and professor-led learning? I find that the students I work with tend to have really interesting conversations in the gaps when I’m not there (so, if I’m checking in once a day for example, or there’s a gap on weekends) and don’t go off track, or will actively bring up new ideas that maybe wouldn’t have happened if it was all focused on Q & A with me.

The issue that can come up with graduate classes is if the class is small, then it can be a long time between question and answer, and that’s really engaging for no one.

I’ll be posting on some of these questions over on Music for Deckchairs shortly and I’d really welcome your thoughts there.

29 08 2011
One of these things is not like the other | Music for Deckchairs

[…] of being in person? Maybe the problem isn’t being online, but in having the kinds of wrongheaded online experiences that we’re hearing about so much at the moment. If learning online is like doing your tax […]

1 09 2011
The things I do for this blog. « More or Less Bunk

[…] cover just one small thing for now because it aligns so well with Britney’s guest post here. When discussing discussion boards, our facilitator mentioned that he thinks that you can only have […]

4 11 2011
I guess the Internet will teach our children by itself. « More or Less Bunk

[…] got this one from friend of the blog Britney Titus: Education officials on Thursday gave final approval to a plan that makes Idaho the first state in […]

19 11 2011
Circumstances beyond your control. « More or Less Bunk

[…] friend, the one who is currently taking her entire master’s program online, told me just last week how she had been the group “leader” and despite her best efforts, with […]

24 05 2013
La table de 5

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