Friday, October 3, 2014

Random article critique - Head of Gold, Feet of Clay

I suppose that it's not quite random, it's actually part of the work I am doing for my first doctoral course.  That said, I thought I would post this here (now that its been submitted) to see if others have read this particular article and what they think :)

Power, T., & Morven-Gould, A. (2011). Head of gold, feet of clay: The online learning paradox. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(2), 19-39. Retrieved from

The article’s thesis is that the paradox of online learning is this concurrent appearance of a boom and a bust. Since online learning, like any other complex system, is multifaceted this seems plausible. This piece has three main sections: (1) a literature review on attitudes toward distance education spanning 1999 to 2009; (2) a description and reconceptualization of the iron triangle which has three constraints cost, quality, and access; and finally (3) a proposal for a course design and course instruction methodology that the authors have termed BOLD. While this article was interesting to read, the setup of the argument detracted from its potency. This made me feel as if the authors were putting up a strawman argument, an argument setup so that it is easy to be disproved. My critique addresses certain, but not all, issues in each of the article’s three areas. First, in the area of the literature review, I’ve identified a few of the strawman’s weak points, intended or otherwise. The authors have used Maeroff’s (2003) definition of online learning (OL) as which defines OL as only as an internet-based asynchronous mode of learning. This omits synchronous online learning which, in many institutions, is the reality for online learning. This, of course, sets up their rationale, further in the article, for a method that incorporates asynchronous and synchronous. In 2003 this may have been revolutionary, but in 2011?

The authors cite research indicating that OL often develops without the full involvement of core faculty. Without having gone deeply into the cited literature to review the specific conditions of their research, I have a hard time believing this. Programs, at a distance or in person, do have to go through University governance, and prior to that they need development. Both stages require core faculty involvement. How do online programs manage to be developed without such a key stakeholder?

The faculty, in this article, are portrayed as resisting online learning. Research is cited for this includes reasons such as core faculty not having time to teach online, thus we resort to hiring adjuncts, find the tasks menial and boring, and losing control over their intellectual property (IP). However these arguments assume that tenured faculty do online learning in addition to their regular duties, not as part of their regular duties. A counterexample to this argument is my department where tenured can faculty teach one course online and one on-campus. At least in our University, the reason why more tenured campus faculty don’t teach online is the administration. Faculty don’t question this, so they don’t teach online. As far as IP goes, it seems that the underlying argument is that IP, on-campus, is protected through obscurity since you can only make limited photocopies of a professor’s notes. This point is moot, however given that faculty upload their digital content on systems like moodle even for their on-campus courses. Finally, there is a claim that online students often feel alone and isolated, which links to unsustainably high rates of withdrawal and drop-out. This reference is dated. Practices, and student attitudes, have most likely progressed in the 10 years since the most recent cited article was published. What happens now in online courses? Is this still the case?

The second area of the article deals with the concept of the redefined iron triangle. The authors describe the iron triangle as a zero-sum game, that Universities will inevitably use it, and because OL hasn’t been fully realized yet, the iron triangle isn’t the right paradigm to use. I disagree with this notion that if it were a viable paradigm it would have already worked by this now. The authors don’t consider other important questions that would impact the offering of OL programs such as: What is the mission of the institution? Is OL right for the mission? and, What are the target demographics of student for the institution? It seems like there are some false conclusions drawn here.

Even so, their reframed triangle doesn’t really address other considerations. Cost-efficiency is attributed to administrators as a concern, quality to faculty, and accessibility to students. However, just to pick one group, the students are also interested in quality, which impacts their future prospects for success, and they are interested in the cost, which will determine if they can attend any give OL program. Reframing all terms as positive in the iron triangle doesn’t diminish the fact that there are complexities which aren’t addressed. This is not an accurate representation of reality, and it would appear that this is also a zero-sum model.

Finally, the third area of concern is the BOLD course design itself. In addition to the concern raised above, about the operative definition of OL, the claims of BOLD’s benefits appear overblown. For instance the authors claim that administrators will like BOLD’s cost-efficiency because there is no need to invest in any new systems. However there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that systems to support BOLD do cost in both monetary and human resources terms to operate, and operate well, and if the university does not already have them, they need to procure them.

From a pedagogical perspective BOLD is claimed to increase quality by successfully approximating the campus experience, without having to be on-campus. However there isn’t a questioning on whether the campus experience should be approximated in an online environment. This seems like the equivalent of recording a play, as it would be experienced in the theater, to be broadcast on television. While it is an approximation of a play, is it the best way to tell the story? As a whole, I don’t think that the iron triangle and BOLD are bad. However, in potentially setting up a strawman argument to easily prop the BOLD alternative, this doesn’t help support it. This could have been a better exploration of BOLD if it didn’t rely on such a setup to prop it up. And, finally, an initial stated paradox wasn’t fully explored.
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