Despite being on sabbatical, I spent much of Election Day at a training session for people in my department who will be teaching online soon. No, I haven’t changed my mind about anything. However, my friend Robert Bromber was our guest speaker so I definitely wanted to hear him out.
Robert is now head of the Education Technology Branch at the Marine Corps University, but he used to work in our department. He’s the one who set the table for my decision to ditch my textbook by spending his entire survey class teaching against the then-required Alan Brinkley codex. He’s the first person who suggested to me that I have students email draft papers so that we can go back and forth many more times before they’re due than if we only exchange written work during class periods. This time, he suggested that in order to get students active on online discussion boards, you should give them more credit for comments that come earlier in the week. I’m going to apply that idea to my next class blog to see if it can help me overcome my participation problem.
We invited Robert in because he’s been teaching online for something like a decade now and he’s very, very good at it. Yet long before this blog took a technological turn, Robert taught me that it actually takes a lot more time to teach online well than it does to teach face-to-face. For example, you have to spend a considerable amount of time to plan out your course before it even begins in order to lay down the necessary infrastructure. Being overcommitted as it is, not taking on another huge project like re-learning Blackboard and trying to teach inside of it is yet one more reason that I’m sticking with face-to-face instruction. Nonetheless, Robert has reminded me that online instruction can be done well if the instructor puts a lot of effort into it.
All this made me wonder why people who do teach online well aren’t incredibly angry at MOOCs. After all, MOOCs do exactly what they do, but they do it very badly almost by definition. One of the things Robert stressed is that people teaching online can’t do everything themselves. You’re more like a facilitator than an instructor in an online course, he argued. You can’t call up every student who doesn’t get that hard concept you’re teaching and talk them through it. You can’t read every single comment in every discussion thread, let alone respond to them. The machine sometimes has to run itself.
But in a MOOC, the machine has to run itself almost entirely. Superprofessors can barely read any of the comments in a forum with 82,000 potential participants. They can’t answer e-mails or else they’ll be overwhelmed. In fact, if the superprofessor had five TAs, they wouldn’t be able to answer all the e-mails either. It’s like trying to get in touch with Amazon if you have a problem with your order. No operators are standing by. Send us a note, and maybe we’ll get back to you in a week if you’re lucky.
Robert told us that studies have shown that the ideal number of students in an online class is 18. That’s apparently just enough to make forming a community with its own personality possible, but not enough to be overwhelming for the instructor or the students. Even in a face-to-face course with 500 students, there are presumably TAs who are providing the personal touch that makes actual education possible. In a MOOC, you’re on your own kid.
Sure, there are a lot of self-motivated people out there who can excel in this environment. But what’s going to become of the people who can’t if 82,000 students at once ever becomes the new normal? Will anybody left in higher education actually care?