Sunday, December 18, 2016

Online education still in the shadows

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
Almost every week I meet colleagues who are skeptical about online education. Online is often considered a poor and limited alternative to the "rich experience" of classroom teaching and many point to lower completion rates, lack of human contact and complicated technology as reasons. The facts, however, point in the opposite direction as an article in Inside Higher Ed discusses, Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online. The reluctance to get involved in online education is mostly due to low awareness of the issues involved, lack of practical experience as well as a lack of support and incentives within the institution.

Extensive research has shown that, when well designed, online courses can be as as effective or better than campus courses in terms of student results (see for example the review of research findings in The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature, Means et al, 2013). The key words are well designed and this must be the focus of all courses whether online of face to face. The poor reputation of online education stems from the large number of poorly designed and under-supported online courses that have been produced over the years, often by institutions who have not fully understood the principles and simply focused on content delivery and then left the students to self-study. Such courses have suffered further from the fact that many teachers are assigned to online teaching with little or no training or support and the results should hardly be surprising.

The case against online education is not, in fact, without merit. In the hands of underfunded and poorly managed public and private institutions, online learning often delivers mediocre education at best. If those failures represent the sum of online education, then faculty members who reject it have every reason not only to be suspicious of it but also to discredit it.

The most important barriers to mainstream acceptance of online education are based on attitudes and practice.
  • Those most opposed to online learning generally have little practical experience of the field and are unaware of the opportunities available in today's digital media.
  • Online teaching is seen as a threat to the traditional model, challenging the massive investments in campus facilities and weakening universities' control.
  • Online teaching has very low status in universities and getting too involved can even have a negative effect on career development.
  • Successful online learning demands a rethink of traditional classroom pedagogy. The concept of the teacher being in sole charge of a course behind closed doors is threatened when the course goes online. Online courses require teamwork (as all courses should).
Teaching online is indeed demanding and requires careful planning as well as close cooperation with support staff such as educational technologists and librarians. Many are wary of getting involved because it involves a time-consuming and demanding rethink of existing practices. Considering the pressure many teachers are under in today's cash-strapped institutions this wariness is fully understandable. A new online course needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply uploading campus material to an online platform. As the article points out:

Going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.

The move to online teaching involves a major effort but if that responsibility is shared by working in course design teams that effort is shared and the work can be a major learning experience for all. The main point here is that delivery form (on-site versus online) is not the real issue. Successful courses in any environment have exactly the same success factors. The best classroom teachers are generally also best in an online environment. Whatever the delivery form enthusiasm, empathy, a genuine interest in students and good planning are absolutely crucial to student engagement and success. I wish we could soon stop comparing delivery forms and focus on what makes a course successful, namely professional course design, clearly stated pre-course information and requirements, creating a sense of community, teacher engagement, a supportive environment, formative assessment, frequent feedback and meaningful examination methods.

Whatever the delivery form, on-site, online or a blended format, the success factors are the same.

In the long run, neither the guardians of the campus nor the champions of the digital revolution will claim victory. Already, the educational battleground is populated by faculty members who accept that neither physical nor virtual education will triumph but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning.

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