For my sins, I guess, I’m a member of the Berkeley faculty Committee on Courses of Instruction. Things are looking up for this gig, though, because there’s growing interest on campus and at the university level in online instruction, and the committee is starting to seriously deliberate this very interesting issue. Not surprisingly, I guess, a lot of the action is going on in the wrong arena, looking for ways to cut costs “without reducing educational outcomes”, and this approach will assuredly wind up cutting costs and only reduce quality somewhat. But it’s almost certain that we could actually teach more, better, and cheaper with technology if we go at it wisely.
How would we think about online education if we were focused on quality and value instead of penny-pinching?
First, we would be looking at students, which is where value actually gets created, instead of faculty. When someone videotapes a class session, where is the camera? If there’s only one, it’s almost certainly at the back of the room pointing at the prof and the blackboard, collecting supply-side information, not at the students who are quite eloquent with body language, fidgeting, and the like about what they are experiencing.
So let’s talk more about learning and less about teaching , just to maintain the right focus and undermine professorial ego bias. In my vineyard, higher education, it has a few characteristic productive routines:
A. reading textbooks, journal articles, and the like to accumulate declarative knowledge and maybe skills
B. practicing acquired skills, including engaging with exhibits like poems, paintings, lab exercises, critters on the hoof on field trips or in the barn, and narrative cases
C. being talked to, sometimes with exhibits on slides or a blackboard, in one-way, one-to-many lectures [did I mention professorial ego? If you haven't tried it, you have no idea what a rush it is to be standing up in front of dozens or hundreds of people, saying exactly what is most interesting to you for eighty minutes straight , not having to waste time on (or, being able to diss) all the wrong things other people know, especially if the audience has been conditioned that making you feel smart will be very good for them. This element must be absolutely central to the educational enterprise, mustn't it? Any student for whom it isn't the moon and the stars is surely a very lost soul...]
D. conversing with peers about the course material
E. conversing with peers, in a facilitated discussion section [cf C: this one is really scary and fairly dangerous for the prof, because once you let the students start doing their own thinking, you lose a lot of control, and if you aren't in control, what are you? I have led class discussions in which evidence leaked out that I was not the smartest person in the room, nor the best informed on some key issue. Really. You can feel the ground shaking at those moments. I really feel for the track coach who can't outrun a single person on his team - how does he get himself to work in the morning for more humiliation?]
F. creating original work like a term paper, a sculpture, or answers on an essay exam [another ego problem for the prof, frequently. If I let them, students often do stuff beyond my own abilities, beyond what I expected from the assignment (or sideways to it), and sometimes beyond my comprehension, so it can be really hard to grade.]
G. engaging with comments and critique of original work by the prof and/or GSI [see F]
H. being asked questions to which the prof knows a single right answer, in exams and problem sets [why this pointless affective error, instead of exercises or opportunity sets? all my students have all the problems they want and would much prefer solutions to problems they know they have]
I. engaging with evaluation of exam and assignment work, in the form of a letter or number scalar summary.
J. providing feedback to management, in time to be useful for mid-course correction, about how the class is changing the student intellectually (and affecting her in all the other ways that matter). [We are so bad at managing and enabling this one...]
[update K. as James points out, and how could I forget given that students do this in every course I teach, formal presentations to peers, individually or as groups.]
This list is important because faculty attention to each of these has very different time fractions, salience, and intensity from students’ allocations, so thinking about how we teach is very different from thinking about how students experience what we put before them.
For most people, it appears that “putting a course online” is mainly providing C as online video, and eliminating E or turning it into a chat or email exchanges. But lots of the other elements are already “online”, even in conventional courses. I receive and critique papers as files, including mp3 files of dictated comments, not dead trees, and email students all the time. Almost all my reading assignments are links, not all to text, in a syllabus that is also a file. I still assign three paper textbooks in my two regular courses (none in others), but one of the three comes with a CD of cool software, actually a sort of online lab. If 75% of student time is spent “online” doing things other than C and E, isn’t that pretty much an “online course” already? If C is experienced on a computer monitor as a video instead of passively but live, does that make it cross the on-line line?
What technology allows, that seems to me incredibly valuable, is to allow A and C to run together into a medium like the one students are already adept at using, and you are using now because it pays off for you at this moment better than a book or the TV: a multimedia thing like a web site with videos, perhaps including some talking-head shots of the prof, text with copious links, interactive experiments like those at PhET, chat rooms, and the like. This thing allows student self-pacing, “rewinding” and repeating, and has no bottom to the depth to which it can be plumbed in the parts different students find especially interesting, and with bSpace (for example), we’re going there willy-nilly: might as well be reflective, take some data, and get really good at it.
What’s at risk? Well, paper books have pace control and rewind, portability, and they are just really nice to use. I read them and I love them, but I’m not sure their deficiencies won’t doom them in competition with an iPad or something along that line. I also worry about physical engagement for a lot of B; nature documentaries on TV, and the feedlot scenes in Temple Grandin, deliver much more content per minute than stumbling around in the jungle or even visiting a facility, but touching a large animal, or seeing just how hard it is to see a real kinkajou going about its business in a real tree are very different, and maybe importantly so. We’re certainly not going to teach sculpture without hands on clay, or piano playing without a physical keyboard; if a prof can’t put her hands on the clay or on the hands of the pianist, is there any real substitute?
Most troubling to me is the fate of D (for distance-learning students not in the same zip code) and E [update: and K] (for all students). Learning is not just content, but also affect. We are hard-wired to talk face-to-face, and not only with words or even words in voices, but eyebrows and all the rest of it. And conversation in a group of four or fifteen is not the same as three or fourteen separate dyadic schmooses, not at all. I’ve been in a lot more than my share of on-line international meetings recently, on the phone and web-enabled with exhibits and chat, and have a little experience with videoconference teaching. On the one hand, those meetings would not have happened if they required physical travel; on the other, they are really lame, and I don’t think it’s only that I (and all my colleagues) are on a learning curve getting better at doing them (from a low base).
The “question of online education” has been settled: learning in for-credit degree programs is mostly online now. Instead of asking whether we should do it, we should be asking how the on-lineness can pay off even better for students, and we need to think outside the absurdly cramped box of videotaping a bunch of standup lectures to sell to more customers than fit in a room.