If technology is the answer, what exactly is the question?

22 10 2011

Usually I shy away from writing about the last thing I read in Inside Higher Ed that made me angry because that’s just too easy a way to blog. This article from Friday, however, really is appalling on oh so many levels though. “Myths of Online Education” is the title and the subject is a panel at the Educause conference in Philadelphia last week.

Myth #1 is that teaching online is a giant time-suck for the professors who do it. “Poppycock!” says our panel of experts:

[George] Otte took aim at the question of online education being a time-suck for professors — a question that has prompted fears of faculty burnout. But the CUNY technologist suggested that this question does not adequately account for the cost, in time, of finding one’s footing on a new teaching platform.

“We may be confounding the time it takes to do something with the time it takes to learn to do something,” Otte said. The first time instructors teach online, they tend to overcompensate for their ignorance by over-investing their time in the virtual classroom. But that does not mean they will not adjust and adapt — just as most instructors did to the circumstance and demands of classroom teaching when they began their careers.

He’s right, of course. While it’s hard to master programs the first time you use them, everyone tends to get better at something the more they use it. For example, even though WordPress keeps changing the position of everything on its dashboard every few months, if you keep an open mind you’ll figure it all out.

Unfortunately, that’s not the real reason that online education is a gigantic time-suck, as an online instructor points out in the comments:

I teach online. I’m in the classroom almost every day and often on weekends. That’s part of the trade-off for not traveling to a classroom building and spending roughly 3 hours a week in a classroom. But all-in-all, teaching a class online requires more hours in total than teaching in a classroom. Gestures, etc. take less time than typing and editing classroom posts than simply talking in a face-to-face setting. Also, setting up the class is a front-loaded process and seems to take more time than just creating a syllabus.

Even if you read this article last week, you should go back and read the comments. They are so brutal that the panelists from the conference felt the need to chime in and start to walk back what they said while preaching to the choir. I guess the “myths of online education” don’t really look like myths where the rubber meets the road.

Take this one, for example:

My Dean increased the load for a hybrid online course (that’s a course that meets 1, 2, or 3 times with the rest of the course fully online) from 15 to 20 students this semester. Traditional courses have 30 students in our department. I have a few hybrid online courses of 20 students and this has caused the number of discussion groups to increase and my time to teach the course has risen dramatically as I try and provide feedback nearly weekly to each student. My workload has increased dramatically.

I get the impression that people who go into online teaching with the best of intentions tend to “adapt” by working less as their classes get scaled up by administrators who couldn’t care less how much feedback students get. Indeed, from what I can tell, the technology is being deliberately designed to do the teaching for you because that’s what makes the scaling up possible. What the academic technologists are trying to tell us in this article is, “Let the computer be your friend.” I can’t help but wonder though would you even need a friend if the people who hire you to teach online gave you the resources you need to do your job right?

After all, if you care about giving students individual attention the program you use cannot do that for you. That’s why I liked this comment a lot:

Written commentary on each student’s papers should explain to a student how his or her methods are in error, if necessary, or how the methods shown by a student are incomplete, insufficient or “well-developed”. In essence, an instructor must analyze the comprehensive fashion by which a student is communicating in written form the critical thinking used in solving a mathematical problem.

Moreover, there is no computer software that could possibly analyze the multiplicity of methods and variety of notation (in mathematics especially) that a student could use to demonstrate solutions to “critical thinking” type problems. Thus, most of an instructor’s activities CANNOT be replaced by “machines”.

Unless, of course, you don’t care that the machine is offering an inferior educational product which the online education industry will be happy to provide you with assuming you are willing to pay their price.

PS I’ll take up myth number two from this article on Monday morning: cheating.


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23 10 2011
Analyse this | Music for Deckchairs

[…] Jonathan Rees, I’m really trying not to arc up in response to each inflated claim about technology’s power to save education from its own dismal, maladjusted, unimaginative future. Maybe it’s the […]

24 10 2011
Don’t ask, don’t tell: Online education edition. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I promised on Saturday, this post takes up the second of the “Myths of Online Education” as outlined in this […]

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