Two Tough Questions for Online Education

Originally posted on the Higher Education Scholars @ BC blog

Online higher education has been on a rapid rise in the United States. According to NCES data, the proportion of undergraduate students who took at least one online course during the 2011-2012 academic year more than doubled from just eight years prior (from 15.6% in 2003-2004 to 32% in 2011-2012). Proponents who view online courses as democratizing force in higher education applaud this trend, as do the many institutions that have ramped up production capacity and created new institutional structures through which to deliver online education (e.g., Penn State World Campus or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America). While the increasing prevalence of online education leads to all sorts of important questions, this article focuses on two specific questions related to the teaching and learning process: Are students succeeding in online courses? How does online teaching change faculty work? While some research exists on these questions – a subset of which is explored below – they are both in need of much more thorough investigation by the higher education research community.

Are students succeeding in online courses? Much of the initial research on student outcomes in online courses compared them directly with face-to-face courses, finding “no significant difference” on average. There is significant nuance hiding behind these averages, however. Certain populations actually perform worse in online courses than in face-to-face courses, particularly male students and students from racially minoritized groups, and the reasons for these outcomes are not well understood. Making this question even more difficult is the fact that online courses are no more monolithic than face-to-face courses, meaning that researchers have found markedly different results in student outcomes depending on the instructional techniques utilized in online courses or the instructional techniques utilized in the face-to-face courses to which they are being compared. What seems possible to generalize from these results is that students can learn as well in online courses as in face-to-face courses, but the ascertaining the reasons for success will require additional research.

Online education significantly changes faculty work. Instructors in face-to-face courses typically incorporate some mix of direct instruction (e.g., lecture) and class activities (e.g., class discussion) on a flexible basis. They receive a steady stream of oral and non-verbal feedback from students and can clear up misconceptions on the spot. In the online context, instructors may still provide direct instruction, but it is more likely to be in pre-recorded video form without the same built-in feedback mechanisms. Class discussions often shift from oral to textual and from immediate to time-dispersed, significantly changing the nature of interaction that instructors have with students. Synchronous video sessions can overcome some of these challenges, but instructors face a learning curve in this environment as well. Producing online courses is a significant time investment for faculty members and must be done months in advance of the term in which the course will be offered. While these changes are not necessarily negative, they still significant change the nature of faculty work.

Perhaps more significantly, many institutions have fundamentally restructured the nature of faculty work in the production of online courses. In typical face-to-face courses, faculty members have substantial autonomy in decisions about methods and content, exercising their professional judgment about how best to instruct students and communicate subject matter. To develop online courses, however, it is common for institutions to hire one instructor to develop the course – usually called a Subject Matter Expert – and then hire a separate instructor to teach the course. Both instructors are typically hired on an adjunct basis and paid accordingly, with all rights to the course held by the institution. While this disaggregation of the instructional role may reduce costs to the institution and ensure that the resulting course can be reused nearly ad infinitum, it also depersonalizes the course and deprofessionalizes the instructor teaching it. Rather than making judgments about the best way to teach a given subject, the instructor uses the pre-built template as a script and takes on a role not dissimilar from a teaching assistant or grader. Understood alongside the increasing prevalence of online education, this approach may exacerbate the continuing decline in the proportion of tenure-line faculty positions in higher education, further weakening the professoriate.

Considering the continued growth of online education, it is even more important to understand its impact on students and faculty members, not to mention American higher education more generally. Researchers need to reckon with the nuances of online education and attempt to understand the structures that promote student and faculty well-being. Perhaps through applying this research online education can become what its proponents hope for: a true democratizing force in American higher education.

Ruminations on Dewey’s Education and Experience

I just finished John Dewey’s Education and Experience. Dewey’s main argument, as I understand it, is that education should be based in the life experiences of students. Educators should understand students’ current life experiences and facilitate opportunities for building on these experiences. These opportunities should be cooperatively created and, indeed, facilitated by the educator, not imposed by him or her. Rather than expecting students to adhere to a rigid set of externally-imposed guidelines, these cooperatively-created opportunities should enable exploratory freedom within thoughtful frameworks of progressively-increasing rigor. Dewey is clear that he thinks this is a much, much more difficult way to educate than traditional education, but believes that it more closely adheres to the ideals of a democratic society than more authoritarian methods.

Several things occurred to me as I was reading this book. First, Dewey gave the address on which the book was based in 1938 – over 75 years ago. Progressive educators at the time were reacting against rigidly structured education systems that seemed to stifle the natural desires of students to learn. This can lead one to either hope or despair; one either sees hope in the enduring power of progressive thought applied to a similar contemporary confrontation, or despairs that even with the best efforts of progressive educators over three-quarters of a century very little seems to have changed. No matter which view one takes, there is no denying that the questions and conversations about how best to educate have been around for a long time and are likely not amenable to quick fixes. A good deal of hard work, presumably of the sort that Dewey prescribes, will be necessary to effect change in a very old system.

Second, the purpose of education – the why of education – is deeply embedded in this argument. What is education about for Dewey? Nothing less than the ability and desire of students to continue learning throughout their lives: “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified…. the pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life” (Dewey, 1938/1963, p. 48). Education should be about helping students mature to self-actualization, though I don’t think Dewey actually used this phrase. Education is the dynamic interplay between exploration and educator guidance, the connections formed and nurtured in cooperative learning spaces, and the development of self-regulated and self-motivated learners.

Third, themes of connected learning run throughout this book. Most obvious is the connection between educator and student that is fundamental to Dewey’s conception of cooperative creation of meaningful experience-building activities. Educators need to know enough about their students, to understand their students well enough, and presumably to care about their students enough to facilitate these experiences. Connection among students in a class is also part and parcel of Dewey’s philosophy, with the cooperative aspect taking center stage in activity formation. Perhaps most importantly from Dewey’s perspective is the connection of new educational experiences to prior student experiences and the opportunities created for students by these connections. Thus, even in an age that predated most forms of electronic communication, Dewey believed connected experiences to be at the core of good educational practice.

Which leads us back here, to 2014, to ask ourselves what lessons we might take from Dewey’s eloquent statement of education’s purpose. One might argue that the ability to connect has expanded significantly since Dewey’s day, especially with the advent of the internet. Very good – but what does this mean? Are we getting better at working cooperatively with our students to foster learning experiences that build on their prior experiences? We might be getting better at quantifying the prior experiences of our students – if proponents of “big data” are to be believed – but are we putting this toward the creation of meaningful experiences? Are we providing students the freedom to co-create their own learning experiences on the way to self-actualization? Or are we still rigidly defending curricula to be mastered in an order and logic that we (or, perhaps worse, textbook publishers) decide is correct, without input from our students or reflections on their past experiences? In short, are we any closer to achieving the goals for which Dewey advocates because of our greater ability to connect today?


Reference: Dewey, John. (1963) Education and experience. New York: Collier Books. (Original work published 1938)