A cover story from today’s (11.05.10) New York Times provides a fairly broad snapshot of the boom in online college courses: Learning in Dorm, Because Class Is on the Web.
Some interesting numbers mentioned in the piece:
- “4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier, …. A large majority â€” about three million â€” were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses.”
- “At the University of Florida,…resident students are earning 12 percent of their credit hours online this semester, a figure expected to grow to 25 percent in five years.”
- “At the University of Iowa, as many as 10 percent of 14,000 liberal arts undergraduates take an online course each semester.”
One troubling fact in many of the cases mentioned in the article is that “online” is synonymous with massively increased per course enrollments.
â€œI would prefer to teach classes of 50 and know every studentâ€™s name, but thatâ€™s not where we are financially and space-wise,â€ said Megan Mocko, who teaches statistics to 1,650 students.
If it’s simply a matter of preference, that is one thing. However, there is a fundamental mistake in seeing geography or the number of chairs a fire department will allow in a room as the only impediments to increasing class size. You don’t want a student (like the one quoted in the article) to come back and say that “In the 10 or so online courses she has taken in her four years, â€œitâ€™s all the same…. No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late.â€
When faced with that kind of miserable description, you need to askÂ whether it reflects a series of individual failures on the part of faculty to meet reasonable minimum expectations in instruction (either through lack of training and support or simple negligence) or whether massive scaling up to increase enrollments makes it impossible to expect faculty to reasonably meet those basic standards.
Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Sloan Survey of Online Learning, explicitly points to a tiering of educational delivery and hints atÂ the underlying disparity:
“Many [online students] are in community colleges, he said. Very few attend private colleges; families paying $53,000 a year demand low student-faculty ratios.”
There should be very legitimate concerns if “online” automatically equals a student-to-faculty ratio of 1650:1 or 100:1 or even 50:1, particularly if the bricks-and-mortar equivalent course has a student faculty ratio of 30:1 or 15: 1. This sort of bulk teaching has the potential to backfire purely from the perspective of customer expectations, regardless of whether the student learned:
â€œWhen I look back, I think it took away from my freshman year,â€ said Kaitlyn Hartsock, a senior psychology major at Florida who was assigned to two online classes during her first semester in Gainesville. â€œMy mom was really upset about it. She felt like sheâ€™s paying for me to go to college and not sit at home and watch through a computer.â€
In late 2010, we should all understand that “watching through a computer” alone shouldn’t be the problem. It is what the student is watching and whether watching is all he or she is being asked to do. Â The questions of deliveryÂ mode and Â student to faculty ratioÂ should be considered in terms of efficacy.Â While the provost of the University of Florida acknowledges that budget cuts are the prime motivator, he acknowledges that “the higher education industry in the United States has not been tremendously effective… if you look at national graduation rates.”
The article very briefly touches on some techniques that faculty can use to improve the onlineÂ experience:
Kristin Joos built interactivity into her Principles of Sociology course to keep students engaged. There are small-group online discussions, and students join a virtual classroom once a week using a conferencing software called WiZiQ.
Those sorts of Â small group sessions and those synchronous “virtual” interactions are integral for an online program to be successful, but they also point back to the kinds of course content that might make for the most effective educationalÂ experiencesÂ more generally. Â Large lecture courses Â likely suffer the least in being moved online without being more comprehensively re-envisioned, but that isÂ becauseÂ they are the ones with the least student-faculty interaction in the first place. Less is lost in the “translation” but maybe there is value in reconsidering theÂ sourceÂ material too.
Both this article and the shortÂ pieceÂ accompanying it in the New York Times Â (Live vs. Distance Learning: Measuring the Differences) point to studies previously mentioned on this blog (Online & the Classroom). They ask serious questions about measuring the effectiveness of online classes, particularly as universities look for way to serveÂ broaderÂ student audiences in theÂ face of Â dire economic conditions.
Right now there are far more questions than answers about how the two delivery modes compare in the widest sense, but what seems obvious is that there will not be a single answer and any honest analysis Â will need to account for
- What is beingÂ taught.
- Who is teaching.
- Who the students are.
What does seem clear is that moving forward, online courses are a fact for both distance education students and their residential, on-campus counterparts. The question remains of how to leverage Internet-delivered courses to reap the gains of broader access and economies of scale while not saddling faculty with unreasonable responsibilitiesÂ or more basically, undermining the overall goals and missions of the institutions themselves.