Learn Something New Every Day!

Topic O:  Online Education or Everything Old Is New Again

My Background with Online Learning:

ditance ed computer keysI first started hearing about the potential of online education back in the 1990s.  I was a teacher of English at a community college. Some colleagues who were more technologically savvy than I was were very excited about teaching classes online. They could not help but think of all the wondrous information that could be added via the internet and the flexibility that could be made available for students.

Others were worried:  How could online instruction work? Students obviously need the one-on-one with an instructor. Online learning would undoubtedly become a glorified correspondence course.  Some administrators were wondering if online learning could somehow save money.  After all, online learning does not need classrooms and all those corresponding costs like maintenance and air conditioning.  Not limited by the number of desks, just how many students could be enrolled into one section of a class?

When these conversations were first starting, I was dividing my time between teaching and serving as Staff Development Coordinator.  Through staff development, I did set up a summer online course for interested faculty to explore the potential of online education.  Those who enrolled included a handful of true skeptics.  By the end of the short course most actually acknowledged the potential of online learning, realizing that it needed to be approached as a totally different learning experience than traditional classrooms.  A successful online class would not simply post the teacher’s notes or lectures online and send the students out to read on their own.

dollar signWhen I moved into administration in 2002, the concerns over online learning did not end.  Some administrators still felt such classes might be a way to save money.  But most of us realized that online learning could prove an effective option for students, but that many parameters needed to be established, including such matters as the following:  Training faculty to work in this new environment; evaluating the courses, teachers, and the students once courses were developed; making sure the students were prepared for the experience; and determining the online platforms and services that needed to be established.  Online courses would not be the panacea to educational problems and rising costs, but they were an avenue worth exploring to meet student need.

Since then, I completed my doctorate through the University of Phoenix in Educational Leadership.  All of the coursework was online, so I needed to enhance my technical skills to be an effective student in that learning environment.  There were all the expected requirements of being a traditional student, but I also realized that in many ways more involvement was being asked of me as an online student.  Individual assignments were due every week, and there was tons of reading.  However, collaborative work was the norm, meaning I had to interact each week with my group of colleagues, so we could finish a weekly project as well.  Weekly discussions were required, encouraging a dialog with fellow students.  To meet this discussion requirement, I needed to be online five days out of seven and post a minimum number of responses.  Research was required for everything, but thanks to online research through the university library, such research was not too time consuming.  I really appreciated not having to drive, park, and show up on time.

another laptopEven more recently—several months ago—I took a training class to teach an online course through the American Public University System.  I had to learn that university’s platform, its technological systems that enable all the classroom interaction.  I also had to learn some effective ways to engage students in the online classroom, so one-on-one interaction was enhanced.  I am now teaching an online writing course to 30 students.  This week, while the students work on their essays due Sunday night by midnight, they have also been participating in an online discussion.  Thus far, 125 responses have been posted in that discussion—I read them all and respond to at least half of the initial posts by each student.  I have also been working one-on-one with some students having trouble with their essays through 30 plus one-on-one messages.  The engagement is there with the students, so learning potential is also there.

Recent Developments in Online Options:

My experience is nothing new or different than any other online instructor has experienced.  Most colleges and universities—whether private or public, university or community college, exclusively online or offering online in addition to traditional offerings—offer online courses these days.  Perhaps the newest thing is MOOCs, massive open online courses.  Perhaps the most famous one thus far was offered for free through Stanford University—the subject was artificial intelligence.  The number of students who enrolled was staggering:  150,000.

Some companies are now thinking they we could offer MOOCs as well. And some colleges and universities are thinking their students could take advantage of those courses, reducing the courses the colleges and universities have to pay to offer.  In California, some legislators are putting forward the idea that any general education courses taken anywhere online could be used to meet requirements within any school’s program, thus saving costs and time.  Of course, faculty from the California State University system are worried; their concern is that not all courses are the same in terms of learning outcomes and standards, even if they share the same name or address the same subject. They have valid concerns.  Of course, I am over simplifying, but the different ways of viewing new opportunities such as MOOCs is a reality.  Nothing is ever easy.

This lengthy preamble is my way of saying that I have a range of experience with online education.  I see its potential and understand some of its problems.  When new options such as MOOCs surface, I find them exciting and think how I could find the time and energy to enroll in one.  But all the resulting commotion about how to use MOOCs to enhance learning and reduce costs at other institutions, how to make online learning more readily available, and about how to maintain quality learning through effective outcomes and assessments just seems like more of the same.  I keep thinking, these same concerns were raised over 20 years ago when online learning was just getting started.  I guess that old adage is right:  Everything old is new again!

Drawing Some Conclusions:

When I wear my administrative hat, I see online learning as a challenge since effective support services would need to be available for faculty and students as well.  I worry about costs and legislative dictates that never seem to fully understand the educational world.  I know that some students need the flexibility of online learning, but that offering a few courses is not enough; a student starting an online program needs to have access to all the courses required to graduate.  As a teacher, I am struggling to make sure I meet the needs of my students in this online learning environment and working to keep them all participating and engaged.  I also wonder how I will juggle the added load of a second class starting on Monday.  And I am just teaching as an adjunct instructor!  As a student, I just tried to get the work done, connect with colleagues, and keep motivated.  Through my experience, I have drawn some conclusions about online learning and what is needed to make it work.

young woman in computer lab

Ten Things I Think I Know about Online Learning

  1. Online learning by itself is not going to transform higher education.  Radical improvements are needed in higher education whether traditional or online, but until all learning institutions start emphasizing critical thinking skills vs. mastery of content, determine practical ways to assess learning other than standardized tests, and recognize that grades are not the best indicators of learning, real change will not happen.
  2. Effective online learning is not necessarily cheaper than teaching in the traditional classroom.  Yes, classroom space is not needed, so more classes can be offered than the number possible given the sheer number of classrooms. And online classes do not have problems with plumbing or air conditioning.  However, there is an increased need for sophisticated and updated technology to offer the online learning and additional staff and services to make sure everything is working correctly and trouble-shooting options are available for the students and the faculty.  The costs are there; they just surface in different arenas.
  3. Online classes need to be held to the same or smaller class sizes than the more traditional class. A typical online class demands much more one-on-one interaction with students than a traditional class.  Online students cannot just show up, sit in the back and say nothing but still turn in work as they often can in a traditional classroom.  Sure, showcase pieces like a MOOC that presents a fancy lecture en masse can be entertaining and effective, can generate learning.  But if there are tests or discussions and feedback, lots of students are not going to have their needs met effectively by one instructor for the class.  Teaching assistants (graduate students without much experience) could be brought on board at some universities to supply the one-on-one interaction with students, but that arrangement is a different learning experience for the student. Online class sizes, therefore, need to be manageable and thus overloading a teacher with more and more students to seemingly save costs just does not work.
  4. Lots of statistical reports suggest that attrition rates are higher and retention and persistence rates are lower in online classes than in traditional ones.  Probably true, but not necessarily because online learning is not effective.  Online learning is effective for the right student.  Unfortunately, some students take online classes because they are the only sections left open or they think they will be easier, since the teacher cannot see them slumping in the back or fuss at them for arriving late.  To succeed in an online learning environment, students need to be decent writers and self-motivated and disciplined students.  Those traits are needed for traditional students as well, but the need is magnified in the online environment.
  5. Since the students entering an online class need to demonstrate certain skills and abilities if they hope to succeed in their online classes, the institutions need to provide direction on what those expectations are.  Most campuses routinely list the technological requirements for the class, such as space needed on one’s hard drive, software programs needed, and optimal internet connection speeds. Some campuses also list the student success traits (self-motivated, disciplined, good writer, curious, critical thinker, etc.) needed to be successful, but those skills are harder for students to self-assess.  Some colleges offer courses students must take to demonstrate their ability to be an effective student in the online arena, but most cannot require such courses.  Questions of fairness, the problem of adding units to already heavy loads, and—especially in California—the students’ right to fail always surface.  And rightly so.  The same concerns about student success apply to traditional classes as well, but not to such a heightened degree.  I do not have a solution to this problem.  But until the right students with the right skills and abilities are signing up for online courses, the success and retention numbers will not be impressive.
  6. The students who do sign up for online classes need access to a full range of services, comparable to those available in the traditional brick and mortar setting.  These services include things such as counseling, tutoring, disability testing, technology troubleshooting, library access for research and training, to name a few.  The online only  campuses seem to have these services to some degree; at least the two I have experience with do, University of Phoenix and American Public University System, also known as American Military University.  As traditional institutions expand into offering online classes, the online services are not always offered or developed at the same time.  The development and staffing of online services represents some of the hidden costs for offering online courses.  To be most effective, the online learning environment needs to offer courses and services to meet the needs of the total student.
  7. The faculty teaching in the online environment need to meet well established standards regarding how frequently they engage with students.  Answering emails within a set turn-around time, reading all student postings and/or responding to a set number of the postings each week, and returning graded work on a set schedule are some of the parameters that need to be in place.  Most faculty at traditional and online institutions hold office hours, but the other parameters are not usually in place for teachers at online or brick and mortar institutions. These parameters need to be established and enforced for online instructors if the engagement with students will be effective.
  8. Of course, evaluations become the key to making sure whatever rules and parameters are in place for online learning are followed.  Some of the details associated with the established parameters can be monitored and maintained by the technology being used, but such options need to be built into the system.  For effective evaluations, visitors (dean, chair, other faculty) need to be able to observe an online class just as they would a traditional class.  At the online universities where I have experience, the evaluation option is available through online academic observers who basically sit in on classes; they are able to see all the interactions underway at any time, not just on the day scheduled for an evaluation as is the norm for most traditional institutions.  Although some might see such oversight possible via an ongoing academic observer as extreme maybe even intrusive, that arrangement helps the institution maintain the quality interactions they are requiring.  Regardless of the exact process, some effective and timely faculty evaluation methods need to be in place to ensure the potential of online learning is maximized.
  9. Whenever online education is under discussion, someone eventually raises concerns about cheating and how easy it would be for students to get help or have someone else do their work in the online environment.  Cheating is certainly something to be worried about in any class, online or traditional.  Is it possible for someone who is not Johnny to sign up for the dreaded math or writing class and say he is Johnny?  Sure.  But that could happen in the traditional classroom as well; I know I have never checked driver’s licenses in class to be sure the person I know as Johnny really is him.  In traditional writing classes, someone else could write the paper outside of class, but precautions are in place to make such an action noticeable:  in class writing for comparisons, essays completed and approved in stages, all drafts being turned in, etc.  Those same strategies can be used in the online learning environment. In classes where there are more tests than essays, there are some other options available, like timed assessments making the test only available for a limited time minimizing the chance to look up answers or having the test proctored at an actual location like a neighborhood library.   Potential cheating is not a reason to limit online learning options.
  10. Advances in technology make it easier and easier to engage students online, monitor their participation, and share feedback with them.  For example, the technology that runs my current online classroom lets me click a button and send a personal message to one student or to the entire class, and it gives me various ways to monitor student participation, including such things as being able to see a list of all responses by any one student in the group discussions, the number of hours each student has spent online participating, and ways to require and/or allow resubmissions of materials or take-overs on exams.  There are software and services available to check student work for plagiarism, allow students to see a teacher-generated video of some key action or correction, provide audio feedback on work or for such activities as pronunciation practice, allow the sharing of pertinent videos and materials, and enhance timely feedback on papers and materials.  Quizzes and skills reviews can provide students immediate feedback much like the games on such sites as Lumosity, a site I discussed earlier.  My list of what technology and services can enhance learning is minimal—there are lots of options out there!  And they are available to enhance online as well as traditional classrooms.  Online learning by itself or in conjunction with a more traditional classroom experience can help broaden the learning options for everyone.

Finally, after all this reflection on online learning, my primary conclusion is about the same as it was when I first started exploring online education:  Online learning has great potential as long as the problems can be avoided.  Like everything else worth doing, effective online learning rests on people.  On their insights, initiative, and creativity.  On their willingness to develop ideas and engage with students one-on-one.  On their excitement about learning and constant attempts to make the educational process more responsive to student needs.  Online learning is not a miracle cure for what ails higher education.  It is an effective tool that can give options to students as they explore their own learning.   

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What about you?  Have you taken any online classes? What about online learning attracted you to the experience?  Have you taught online? How has your institution addressed the potential and problems of online learning?


 “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”  Bill Gates, 2010

“College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based.”  Bill Gates, 2010

“From surveys and interviews, we have come to know that the number one reason for student success, in a classroom or online, is a caring instructor. Also, online institutions are much more strict about limiting class size than traditional schools, usually setting a maximum of 20 to 25 per section. Thus, there is the need for more, not fewer, qualified instructors. Faculty are also in demand to build new courses, revise old ones, and create the learning assessments for which there is growing need.”  John Ebersole, President of Excelsior College

“Teachers who are using technology the best to improve teaching and learning are using it to individualize instruction. So they’re understanding how students learn, what their learning style is and finding the best lessons to teach that student—understanding that some students are more visual, some like video, some like to read a book on a computer screen and some don’t. It allows them to individualize.”  Heather O’Mara, CEO of HOPE Online Learning Academy

“Technology is no silver bullet, but expecting every classroom in America to have a great teacher who can meet every child’s distinct learning needs given the demands of today’s job is a pipedream as well. By transitioning thoughtfully to a new education system powered by digital learning in which teachers’ roles are different from those of today but no less vital, we can bolster every child’s learning to help them realize their highest hopes and most daring dreams.”  Michael Horn, co-founder, Innosight Institute

“Faculty are moving forward, technologies are improving, and student demand is increasing — but few changes are taking place in the university structure as a whole to accommodate the special needs of the distance-learning student.”   Richard Bothel, Dean of Continuing Education and Distance Learning at Troy State University

“The virtue of a computer in the classroom is that it requires a user, not a watcher.”  Diane Ravitch

“In my experience, it takes about twice as long — prep time, putting materials together — to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.” Denise Keele, professor of environmental policy, quoted on npr.com

“The challenge is not simply to incorporate learning technologies into current institutional approaches, but rather to change our fundamental views about effective teaching and learning and to use technology to do so”   Donald E. Hanna

Comments on: "Topic O: Online Education" (6)

  1. I was one of the last students allowed to register for my first term of university classes for Fall ’96. I ended up in a traditional German course and two online courses: Poly Sci and Econ. The courses involved little to no interaction from the professors, with tests taken in a monitored environment (the Poly Sci computer lab). I took at least one of the successor online courses the following term, because it was hard to beat the minimal level of effort required for these classes. I’ve never really considered that courses could be wildly different than the ones I took, so it’s interesting to reflect on that other students have experienced online learning as a very involved, hands on process.

    I’m glad I can reflect on this in the abstract, instead of worrying about it as either a student or instructor. My time is coming again, sure, but it’s not here yet. 😉

    • Deborah: Your online experience sounds dreadful. Back then, too many classes were like what you describe. I know some administrators told faculty they had to teach online–but the faculty did not want to and did not know how. Those arrangements are what I expect led to classes like you describe. Online classes can work, but they take a lot of work and they have to start with an understanding they are developed and presented so differently from the traditional classroom. My online classes for my doctorate were great because of the interaction. Several from those classes are still email friends–one is in Saudia Arabia, another in HI and then another in FL. Thanks for stopping by–and wading through my long reflection.

  2. My classroom days are over, both as a student and a teacher. However, here’s the thought that I have always worried me about online courses – but its the same as regular courses …. and that’s the amount of busy work.

    • Ah, yes, busy work. It is a challenge to avoid anywhere, as you say. In the online class I am currently teaching, what has felt like busy work to me–after the fact–is sharing feedback to some of the students who obviously do not heed the details. One student worked on the wrong essay early in the course–took one to read and analyze off the wrong list. We did emails about the problem; then she asked if she could use it for the next week’s essay. I said NO! with explanation–and then in checking her thesis (as for all the students), I gave lots of feedback on improving what she was starting. What did she turn in? Not the thesis we worked on. But an essay on the wrong essay from the previous week that was very off topic. ARRGH. At least some of the other students seemed to heed my feedback. The assignments thus far have not felt too full of busy work. Hope you are having a good weekend, with no busy work! Thanks for stopping by.

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