Friday, July 26, 2013

Insert Column Name Here

For a while now I've been thinking of having a Weekend Column on here, something to give my blogging a little more regularity now that I am MOOCless (until the fall anyway) and not reflecting as much on the learning experiences in various MOOC setups.  I was going to have a "ID Stuff: Tin Foil Hat edition" (or "Cynic's Corner") column after I read this article (Who is driving the online locomotive) on the Chronicle the other day, but that seemed a juvenile. I don't know if there are many tin-foil-hat types in academia (someone please enlighten me), but this article seemed particularly bad, so I thought I would respond to it.

The article is written by a community college professor who is wondering who is behind this push for online. What really struck me about this article is that it's written as if it's not written in 2013, but rather it sounds like concerns someone would have in 2003. I say this because our own university system started offering online courses and program in 2001, so by 2003 I could still see some skeptics. In any case, this "advice" column is looking at who would want online learning, and it comes to some false conclusions, and I believe that this entire opinion column is flawed.
As one who is skeptical regarding the long-term benefits of online learning, I would attest that the train metaphor is pretty apt. I sometimes feel as though I'm standing on the tracks, signaling "proceed with caution," while the online locomotive bears down on me, air horn reverberating.
I suspect others share that vivid nightmare. But what makes it especially sobering now is that, with the advent of MOOCs, the train is picking up steam and we're no longer alone in its destructive path. These days entire departments, disciplines, and even institutions potentially stand in the way, at risk of being pulverized along with the rest of us.

I must admit that one of the things that annoys me here, as I written elsewhere, is this whole equating of MOOCs with Online Classes.  Sure, the OC in MOOC stands for online course, but a MOOC is not the only type of online course. Online courses existed before the MOOC, and they have different foundations in pedagogy, and implementation. Their educational philosophies can also be quite different.  Thus, it's unfair to say that a department's or a school's reputation would be adversely affected by online offerings the same way as if they ventured into the MOOC field.  MOOCs are experimental at this point (don't let anyone tell you otherwise), and as such can, and do fail from time to time.  What we learn from those failures is as good as what we learn from successes.

Going back to the idea of traditional online learning, offering an online learning program is no more, or less, risky to your reputation as compared to offering a new on-campus program, if you know what you are doing.  If you don't know what you are doing, then both on-campus and online new offerings have the potential for disaster.  The author also writes that he is skeptical about the long-term benefits of online learning, as if online learning is some sort of social or medical experiment.  It's not.  By his same logic, one might wonder about the "long-term benefits" of college in general.  I know, it sound absurd when one frames it like this, but to me "long term benefits of online learning" and "long term benefits of going to college" are the same thing.

It's true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that "the slower rate of growth ... compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau." 
Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult. 
So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn't exactly hold up.

Here the author has some faulty conclusions. I am not sure that proponents of online learning are claiming that all students are clamoring for online learning. Students are a diverse body of people and it would be false to overgeneralize.  I know that there are some students who are quite vocal in their learning preferences and would prefer to be online, there are some for whom online is a better deal (financially or timewise as they are balancing work and home and school), and there are some that will take online courses every now and again. Of course, there are those who will never take an online course, just because of the principle of it ("dyed in the wool f2f learners"). That said, you can't ignore 1/3 of your learners just because everyone cannot, or does not want to, partake in online offerings.  There are people who simply cannot make it to campus, but can floorish and be great learners if those spatiotemporal constrains are taken away! Why deny them an education that they want?
More telling, perhaps, is the recent Chronicle survey that found that 72 percent of faculty members who teach MOOCs don't believe their students should receive college credit. In other words, even supporters of MOOCs don't think they're as good as face-to-face instruction.
Again,  here we have some faulty conclusions. First faulty conclusion is that we are speaking about MOOCs and online courses in the same breath.  Second, just because 72% of faculty members don't believe students should receive college credit, this does not imply anything about the quality of education that one gets in a MOOC.  First of all, how does one quantify "quality" in MOOCs as compared to face-to-face instruction.  Secondly I haven't seen any data on this, and certainly no xMOOC/cMOOC/f2f  "quality" comparison. No research is available yet, so how can we draw conclusions if we don't have data yet?  Finally, one needs to interrogate why these 72% of faculty don't want students to get college credit for their MOOCs, and not assume it's all about "quality."  If a completer of a MOOC can demonstrate their learning, same as an on-campus f2f student, why shouldn't they receive credit (assuming that they paid someone to evaluate them).
 He noted that most of the employers surveyed by The Chronicle said they were looking to hire people with "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems" as well as having "ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning." The problem, Sternberg said, is that "those are not skills optimally developed through passive learning ... including MOOCs."
Whatever we've been told, I don't believe employers are demanding that students take more online classes or sign up for MOOCs

Again, let's disentangle MOOCs from Traditional Online Learning for one thing. Secondly, it seems that Rob Jenkins (is he related to Leroy?) has not been in a cMOOC. I think that there are people who complete cMOOCs that can and do demonstrate the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. Given that MOOCs are global, these intercultural skills are something one can get in MOOCs, as well as traditional online programs where students come from a variety of backgrounds (since online courses aren't spatially limiting). It also seems that MOOCs seem to be thrown in the "passive learning" camp as an entire category, when this is in fact not true.  Learners can be quite passive regardless of the modality. The only difference is that is a learner is passive in a MOOC they can't demonstrate that they know what they are doing, while in a college credit-bearing course, someone who teaches the course can very easily pass a passive student and thus certifying that this student knows something, when in-fact the opposite may be true.

In the end I saw this article as a type of protectionism from certain faculty.  I am not saying that online learning, or MOOCs for that matter, are right for everyone. I just would like to not make one modality the villain here. Something else is simmering under the surface, and it has nothing to do with online learning....

Your thoughts?

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