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11.05.10 New York Times “Learning in Dorm, Because Class Is on the Web”

November 5th, 2010 No comments

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 — about three million — 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.

“I would prefer to teach classes of 50 and know every student’s name, but that’s not where we are financially and space-wise,” 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, “it’s all the same…. No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late.”

When faced with that kind of miserable description, you need to ask 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 at 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:

“When I look back, I think it took away from my freshman year,” said Kaitlyn Hartsock, a senior psychology major at Florida who was assigned to two online classes during her first semester in Gainesville. “My mom was really upset about it. She felt like she’s paying for me to go to college and not sit at home and watch through a computer.”

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.  The questions of delivery mode and  student to faculty ratio should be considered in terms of efficacy. 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 online 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  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 educational experiences more generally.  Large lecture courses  likely suffer the least in being moved online without being more comprehensively re-envisioned, but that is because 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 the source material too.

Both this article and the short piece accompanying it in the New York Times  (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 serve broader student audiences in the face of  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  will need to account for

  • What is being 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 responsibilities or more basically, undermining the overall goals and missions of the institutions themselves.

Categories: General, News, Research Tags:

Jaron Lanier Essay

September 21st, 2010 No comments

You could spend all day reading literature about educational technology without being reminded that this frontier of ignorance [i.e., how the brain works] lies before us.

Jaron Lanier, from his “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” — an interesting short piece from The New York Times Magazine education issue (09.19.10) on the persistent tension between knowledge and information.

Categories: Best Practices, Curriculum, General Tags:

Curb Cuts and iPads: Universal Design meets Technology in the Classroom

September 17th, 2010 No comments

Reading two seemingly unrelated blog posts and comments in the Chronicle’s online ProfHacker series got me thinking about distance learning – one was about the lack of universal design, accessibility accommodations in universities, particularly web sites (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Academic-Resources-and/26497/). The other was about a professor who declared his summer English Lit classroom a technology free zone (http://chronicle.com/article/College-20-Teachers-Witho/123891/).   

The first blog discussed the notion that websites, especially those at universities, should build accessibility into their web design process by embracing the concept of universal design, design to make life a little easier for everyone. Like curb cuts, the author said, quoting Dwell magazine’s article “Introduction to Universal Design,” those dips in the curbs at intersections designed to accommodate wheel chairs. Those dips also make curbs easier for everyone to navigate, from parents with strollers to commuters with rolling briefcases.

The second post, as one might imagine, launched much debate about the general merits of technology in the classroom. One comment noted that it all depends on the user, much like a terrific chef using “a pile of sticks and a match” creates a far better meal than a lousy chef who has the “fanciest commercial stove on the market.”

So what do curb cuts, chefs, universal design, and technology in the classroom have to do with distance learning? Everything.  If universal design can make something more accessible for everyone, why not apply that same thinking to utilizing technology in the classroom or to designing courses in general? I’ve since come to find out, that this is not the novel idea I first thought it was – turns out the concept of universal design for learning (UDL) has been around for a while.  Its principles were developed around 1997 and the term, “universal design for learning, coined by CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology (http://www.cast.org/).  

The idea is to make courses more “useful,” or more “accessible,” for all students. Much of the current research related to higher education and UDL focuses on accommodating disabled learners (http://www.ahead.org/resources/universal-design). However, since the term universal design applies to everyone, let’s take it step further to include whether or not students participate at a distance. Many of our courses at IIT are blended: students attending remotely learn right alongside (virtually, at least) students attending the live session.  What might be considered an accommodation of distance learner, might also assist the student attending the live session, or vice versa. The trick is in intentionally selecting tools to engage all students.

The first step, as with almost everything, is to define the issue –identify what needs to be accessible. With courses, I would argue, the answer is the course objectives. What do students need to master in the course? Faculty answer that question all the time. Once the objectives are established, look for the best tools and resources that will help all students.  Here’s where we can think outside the box, as it were. Again, intentionality is key. The best tool may or may not be a traditional course lecture. And it may or may not be the next cool thing in technology, like the iPad, or its newest rival. Technology must always support course and program outcomes, not “coolness” factors. More likely than not, there is no one right tool, but a combination of tools to engage multiple learning styles and environments. IIT has a wealth of resources for faculty in its Blackboard system – every course at IIT has a Blackboard (Bb) shell, whether or not it is designated an internet course.  Perhaps one Bb feature, discussion boards, graded or not, could be used to reinforce lecture points for both distance and non-distance learners, for all students.  Interestingly, this is keeping with what that Dwell article identifies as a principle of universal design, making “information … available through several senses at once.” After all, aren’t learning styles based on senses?

Debating the use of technology in the classroom has gone on and will go on for ages. In the meantime, answer this question, how can technology support all students’ mastery of course objectives?  So how do you use technology to make your courses “accessible” for all of your students, both those sitting in class and at a distance? 

Read more about it:

http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Academic-Resources-and/26497/

http://chronicle.com/article/College-20-Teachers-Witho/123891/

http://www.dwell.com/articles/an-introduction–to-universal-design.html

http://www.udlcenter.org/

http://www.udlcenter.org/sites/udlcenter.org/files/UDL2ndDecade_0.pdf

http://www.cast.org/

http://www.ahead.org/

Online & the Classroom

September 17th, 2010 No comments

Wanted to share links to a few recent posts from the New York Times BITS blog (Business*Innovation*Technology*Society).

The first (Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom) is from August and describes the results of a report produced for the US DoE about the effectiveness of online courses compared with that of comparable face-to-face offerings.

The second (Second Thoughts On Online Education) is a follow-up that discusses another study, funded the the DoE and the NSF, in which the finding were more nuanced in important ways. The comments readers posted in response to this second piece were also fairly thoughtful as well.

Would love to hear other responses from within the IIT community.

Categories: General, News, Research Tags:

And so we begin…

July 28th, 2010 No comments

Welcome to IIT Online’s Distance Education blog.

We envision this as a space in which to share news, information, best practices, and ideas from both within and outside of the IIT community.

Our goals are facilitating the development and delivery of rich, effective educational experiences and better communication and knowledge sharing within our academic community using the wide range of technology at our disposal.

Stay tuned.

And if there is anything you would like to see, if there is a gap you feel this blog might help fill, please let us know.

Categories: General Tags: