Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Distance Ed at Community Colleges
IHE had a piece yesterday on the rapid growth of online courses at community colleges. It sounded right to me – faculty skepticism isn't as tenacious as it once was, and online classes fill just as quickly as we can roll them out. (This at a college with flat enrollment overall.)
The early issues with online education have been tough to disentangle. Some of them are probably due to the nature of the beast – the lack of a live audience for a speech class, say. Others are probably temporary cultural holdovers that will fade away as the concept becomes more familiar – the student attitude that an online class is necessarily 'easier,' or the domination of the early rounds of distance ed by 'early adopters' who sometimes make promises beyond what is immediately possible. As we move from 'early adopters' to the broad middle, I'd expect to see some of the overpromising fade away, which is mostly to the good.
To understand the appeal of distance ed, it's important to get a sense of the needs it actually addresses. It does not save labor costs. If anything, it may add slightly to labor costs, since now we need tech support where we didn't before. It is not a way of increasing class sizes or teaching loads. If anything, given the lack of in-person feedback, small class sizes are even more crucial online. In a lecture class of 300, a kid can hide in the back. If you 'hide' in an online class, you might as well not take it at all. Given the necessarily labor-intensive nature of teacherly feedback in an online class, it's simply not realisitic to think that you can stuff the sections fuller online. If anything, you may have to slice them a little thinner.
(Back in the late 90's, I recall attending a conference of the AAC&U at which some blowhard from Harvard opined that online classes were simply a conspiracy to do away with faculty jobs. I questioned him on it, asking for evidence. He seemed affronted that a lowly prole such as myself would question a tenured professor from Harvard. But I was right, and he still has tenure. “Meritocracy,” my ass.)
Distance ed also puts colleges at the mercy of software companies, which, for shorthand, I will refer to simply as greedy bloodsucking mofos (gbm's). GBM's like nothing more than total overhauls of their programs every 1-2 years, since they require fresh purchases. (SOP is to force migration by ceasing to support 'legacy' versions. One in particular – it rhymes with WebVT – is pulling this now.) To my mind, there is an overwhelmingly obvious and compelling argument here for 'open-source,' but local IT departments hold up wooden crosses at the mere mention of the concept. They like to have someone they can call. C'est la vie.
So given that online courses are expensive to run and more expensive to support, and they aren't an anti-faculty conspiracy, what's the appeal for cc's?
Part of it is simple market forces. Students vote with their feet (their clicks? Their mice?) for online classes, and if we don't provide them, other colleges will. (The University of Phoenix is always prowling.) Since we're here to provide a service, we need to listen to those to whom the service is provided.
Part of it is the limits of physical infrastructure. Parking is a constant issue, and classroom space at prime time is at a premium, even if it's easily available at other times. But no amount of 4:00 classes will divert enough students from the Monday-to-Thursday, 10-to-1 slot they so dearly love. To the extent that we can siphon off some of the 'prime time' demand to online classes, we can increase enrollment without building. In tight fiscal times, this is no small thing.
Part of it is the effort to reach students with jobs. The annoying reality of many low-level jobs is that they have variable hours. As any cc professor can tell you, variable work hours and fixed class hours make an unstable mix. With an online class, a student with ever-shifting hours at least has a reasonable shot at completing the course.
Part of it is the ability to cobble together a minimum class size across disparate schedules. We have some electives that don't quite have enough students in the morning or the afternoon or the evening to run a section, but that do have enough when all the groups are combined. By offering an online section, we can run a class that we otherwise wouldn't run. This strikes me as all to the good, both educationally and economically.
And part of it is that cc's have, as part of their mission, a commitment to 'access.' Online classes can work well for high school students (for whom transportation can be a deal-breaker), working adults, people with jobs, people with physical disabilities, parents, and others for whom scheduling is a greater challenge than content.
A few misgivings, though:
Colleges (and I include my own) are only beginning to figure out the right mix of support services for online students. This has become a moving target, as more students take a mix of in-class and online courses. The 'online student' isn't as clearly different from any other student as may have been the case a few years ago. Plenty of students take 3-4 traditional classes, and an online class or two. (Geography remains a stronger factor in determining the student body than you'd think, given the 'placeless' nature of online learning.) I've seen students in the campus library working on the online course management system. For these students, online courses help them take a full load and still get to work on time.
“Hybrid” classes – in which face-to-face teaching is reduced but not eliminated – have been a surprisingly tough sell. Students seem to want a given class to be either one or the other, even as they take a mix-and-match schedule. I still scratch my head at this one.
Academic dishonesty remains a real issue. On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
And I'm still not entirely sure how a 'placeless' delivery mode works with a geographically-defined service area. So far, the issue has been much more theoretical than real, but I don't know if that's temporary or permanent. If it's temporary, we will have some serious rethinking to do.
Loyal readers – what has been your experience with online classes?
One particularly nice thing about online courses in my case: I'm deaf, and if I were to take these same courses on campus, I would have to request sign language interpreters and the university would have to bear that (not at all insignificant) cost. In online courses -- at least the ones I've taken -- I require no accommodations. I have exactly the same level of access as every other student.
We, of course, have no online courses. It's "beneath" us. And yet, we have the same issues. We can't build more buildings, but we'd like to increase enrollment. Some classes might appeal to a wider audience. Rumor has it that some of the wealthy folk in the surrounding neighborhood regularly take language classes at the full ticket price. As a traditional liberal arts college, however, venturing into the online world. I probably isn't going to happen. Which I think is a shame in some ways. I think there are some talented faculty who could do a lot with an online course. I think they could do it "right".
No thanks. I quit. Adn this is the only adjunct job I've ever quit.
If your institution is lowballing the salaries of your geeks, they may well not be inclined to spend their own skullsweat when they can make the institution cough up for a system that doesn't make them work so hard. (Especially when it's likely that nobody in admin will realize that they are working harder.)
Second Line: I taught a correspondence course, once, with very similar rules to what you are describing. It required CONSTANT work: reading the students' exam answers every week, writing narrative replies, reading their corrected work, calling them to check on them, on and on. I was paid on a per-student basis, and there were no economies of scale. It worked out to less than minimum wage.
After my first semester, I wrote a very tart letter to the course director, explaining that considering the work involved, the payment I was receiving was an honorarium, not a salary. And I only accepted honorariums for doing something fun. Which this was not.
I did, however, teach several years in another division of the same college, which paid twice as much for a hybrid course where I had complete content control.
(The University of Phoenix is always prowling.)
Your later mention of Phoenix, with its extremely high use of adjuncts, seems to answer the question about why tenure track faculty might be worried about their jobs. The local universities and colleges around me use adjuncts for most of their online classes too.
First is purely selfish: I really enjoy interacting with people face to face, in the class room, in office hours, advising, whatever. That's one of the best satisfactions about what I do; without it, grading hell would overwhelm me quickly.
Second: this is probably a personal limitation. When I go to teach, I have a rough plan for where I want to go, what I want to accomplish during a class period. But I don't lecture in general. I have a hard time imagining doing what I do, teaching lit, prompting students to think more fully about lit in an on-line format.
Do instructors write new lectures? Do podcasts of lectures?
How do you ask that leading question (what do you make of the imagery in this passage?) on line in a way that really gets students thinking.
Third: one thing I've learned from teaching lit is that students aren't all strong readers. Some are, yes. But most aren't. I think it would be harder to help those students in an on-line format.
I've seen lots of on-line discussion boards, but few really good discussions on them. I think reading skills are part of that, perhaps?
Too often, when on-line stuff is mentioned where I am, the administrators tend to think that the courses can have higher enrollments. I'd like to hear them recognize that responding in writing can take more time and effort than meeting with a student, especially in the brainstorming stages of teaching writing.
Also, some students motivate themselves very well and can be quite successful in online courses, while others really do need the tangible experience of sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture, and seeing the teacher write the homework on the board. As DD said, since community colleges are about access, I think it is important that we provide studens with different needs and learning styles many different ways to learn.
The in-class part connects everyone together and the students almost unanimously find these meetings to be very helpful. The saturday morning lab are hard on my husband (due to our two small children) but they free up precious time for me during the week. As a full-time faculty member, I am easily able to recruit a junior or senior student to help me on saturdays (they are paid as all our part time student workers are.) During prime times M-F most of our labs are full, so the saturday lab also frees up some valuable space.
The main thing, I think, is that my class is treated just like any other class. It is not looked at as a "cash cow" or some kind of "labor saving solution". It is respected and supported. I would not want to teach a "packaged" course developed by someone else.
I should not another potential benefit of online courses. I have some colleagues with mobility difficulties (including severe arthritis), and teaching on-line would make their lives physically easier. The disability issue is not one that affects only students.
* almost no one (instructors that is) takes advantage of the publisher "cartridges" that go along with a book. These provide online-enhanced media that would add to the student experience.
* the attrition rate is due to the level of student more than the subject matter.
* asynchronous learning appeals to the challenged (deaf, wheelchair, etc.) as well as the isolated (in the sticks with no school around) or the deployed (lots of service men and women have access to internet services). In this way, teaching to this population is really rewarding.
* lots of recently-divorced mothers who are recovering from abuse are also attracted to online courses. Their personal narratives are sometimes the most harrowing and impactful.
* it is easier to automate online functions--even grading to a small extent (online quizzes and the like, recycling discussion questions, lectures, etc--it is not only the students who can cut and paste).
* the pay is on par with on-ground, and you can check in at your leisure.
And there is more...
Some of the problems are technical in nature. Because the courses are computer-based, there can be problems with slow servers, software glitches, lost files, or e-mail congestions and backups
Many online educational systems have the potential to create a rather exploitative working environment for their instructors, sometimes creating something that is little more than an “electronic sweatshop”.
Because the interaction with the students is web- and e-mail based, this means that the online instructor is potentially available to students at all hours—24 hours a day 7 days a week, which can rapidly consume the instructor’s time and energy, much more so than a conventional face-to-face course would. An online instructor needs to learn fairly early on how to set reasonable limits to their accessibility, lest they be driven to exhaustion.
Another problem is that the course materials created by online instructors are often treated as being “works-for-hire”, which means that online instructors lose their intellectual property rights when they use their course materials online--they are required to cede the rights on their materials to the vendor or to the university, thereby enabling their employer to sell the online materials to others or to hire a part-timer to deliver the material for considerably less money.
It is often true that online classes rely heavily on standardized course materials, which can mean that online faculty members often have very little academic freedom and are usually required to teach a largely “canned” course syllabus created by teams of instructional-design consultants. Critics charge that this division of labor has resulted in an erosion of academic freedom, as well as a de-professionalization and a de-skilling of the academics that participate in online education, reducing them to the status of performers who simply read the works of others to their students.
Faculty members involved in online instruction tend to become invisible, easily-replaceable cogs in an educational machine. All too often faculty members are thrown into online courses with little or no training or preparation in the techniques and peculiarities of online education, resulting in a bad experience for students and faculty alike.
Finally, because online education is Internet-based and requires fewer “bricks-and-mortar” facilities, it is readily “fungible”; that is, it can be easily transferred to locations where labor costs are lower and where there are fewer protections against employment discrimination or exploitation. Online faculty members live in constant fear that their jobs can be easily outsourced overseas to places like India or China, where there are plenty of well-educated people and where wages and salaries are only a fraction of what they are here in the USA.
The hassles, worries, and frustrations experienced by the overworked, underpaid online faculty often result in a high amount of turnover of instructors, and the quality of instruction can be quite mixed.
I think as the technology evolves, on-line learning will evolve with it. Last week, we used a new software program to do live in-class presentations. Wonderful stuff. I have really enjoyed my distance ed experience and I know I'd be out of a job if I couldn't raise enrollment using those tools. I think the key thing to remember is that you can't teach the same way in a distance course - once you adjust to that it's smooth sailing
Frustrations: Technical glitches abound. The campus through which I've taught all-Web courses uses BlackBoard, which is optimized for broadband, a service which most of my students did not enjoy at home. Thus, they became bogged down in slow test loading, pawky discussion boards, etc. Also, the blessed apps package is optimized for PC--so Mac users, like myself, had to work long with the IT folks to find patches for the system that would allow us to do things like post comments, grade tests and so forth. I've heard similar gripes about WebCT from friends who teach for or through a neighboring institution, so there's "a whole lot o'irritation" going on out there.
I made my peace with the question of "is this equivalent to the same course taught traditionally?" by rethinking my goals and restructuring projects. I worked how to measure--in a rough way--participation in online forums, and assigned both individual and group research/writing exercises with pretty strict rules. The idea with the former was to have some basis for a participation grade equivalent to attendance; the latter was to both push the students, many of whom were seldom on campus, toward the library and librarians and working, even at cyber-remove, with one another. The group project worked out very well: students figured out how to liaise within their groups and what they turned in was for the most part solid work with no evidence of cheating--excessively close derivation from sources, yes, but usually cited and corrected when they turned in their final project papers. One student whined about doing a group project, when in "real life" he would be expected to do "it" all by himself. This student, by the way, is a commissioned active-duty officer in the U.S. Army. And went AWOL in mid-course, only to reappear in the final week. Sigh.
Will I teach online again? I think so, even though it pays poorly and what I earn screws up my taxes (the college can't figure out how to withold enough, even with my specifying an extra sum). It's not the same as classroom teaching, but I enjoy the freeewheeling discussions that take place online (in the classroom many of the same students would be silent though not too strong types) and I am at last satisfied that while how they learn is different from what I'd see in the classroom, it leads them to the questions that I want them to ask...and freedom to kick around the answers.
A few top-of-my-head responses:
- The point about deaf students is well taken. To the extent that distance ed can level some playing fields, I think we can all embrace that.
- Doc's point about faculty with physical issues is also well-taken. I have some faculty here for whom the physical work of teaching is becoming quite challenging, but who are still sharp and mentally capable. The ones who have embraced online courses have found a way to play to their strengths.
- "Beneath us." That says a lot.
- Student rudeness. This certainly isn't unique to online classes, though in some settings the online format may make it worse. Has anyone found a way to prevent that, in an online setting?
- Student attrition. That's a biggie. My impression is that the differential in drop rates is fading as expectations are coming more into line with reality. (Some in the first group erroneously thought that 'online' meant 'no work,' then crashed and burned.) I suspect this is also partially a function of the level of students involved. Some enterprising Ed.D. candidate could do a great dissertation on this. I'm just sayin'.
- Open source. Loved the "skullsweat" line. You may well be right about that, but if you are, I say let's bump up the salaries and do this right. There's no way the salary bumps would hit our budget as hard as successive iterations of WebCT do.
- Harvard v. Phoenix. I don't see the contradiction. My point was that student demand for online courses exists, whether we want it to or not. That's entirely independent of whether the online courses are taught by adjuncts or full-timers. And the adjunct trend started long before the online trend. Let's not collapse our categories, and rail at the wrong thing.
- Improvisation. Totally with you on that. I've always had a relatively improvisatory style in class, and it's not clear to me that online courses lend themselves to that quite as cleanly. I have some instructors here who record lectures in their traditional classes, then podcast them for online sections of the same class. I'll admit being uneasy with that, although I can't say I blame them, either.
- Course packs. My impression is that these are mostly a plot by publishers to destroy the used-book market. Has anyone actually found value in these?
- Broadband access. I see this as a huge problem in rural areas, less so in urban or suburban ones (generally speaking). My hunch is that this problem will fade, over time.
I'll throw in another question, while we're at it. Does your college compensate extra for the extra time in first converting a traditional class to an online format?
"Does your college compensate extra for the extra time in first converting a traditional class to an online format?"
The first class was Statistics. Instead of a textbook, we used the dreadful online statistics package from beoga.net. This package had the distinction of combining stupid, recipe-oriented content with annoying, extraneous animation. When "reading" this text, the student was forced to sit through Flash animations of content. There was no way to flip through to find a formula or a definition. Homework was not required, although problems and solutions were supplied for those who wanted to do them. I didn't—instead I read a real statistics text and, on the day of the final exam, did a few practice problems. I got an A. In our family, we referred to this class as Statistics for the Stupid.
The second class was Macroeconomics. At least in this class, there was a real textbook, and not a bad one, though I know of better. For homework, the instructor chose the Aplia online content. Aplia is excellent, but the instructor didn’t assign many problems and the ones he did assign were not always well chosen. Normally in an introductory economics class, there is a lot of emphasis on graphing and understanding the various curves and graphs that describe economic phenomena, but in this class we didn't work with graphs much. In addition to the text, the instructor provided "lectures:" written summaries of the text. The instructor was a poor writer, and in any case we had read the text, so these "lectures" were worthless and I didn't bother reading them. I did almost nothing in this class and still got an A+. It got nicknamed Macroeconomics for the Lazy.
Each of these classes had many students. I think the Macro had over fifty, and the Stats, which was joint taught by two instructors, had over a hundred. I understand that it's difficult to teach such large classes, but I didn't feel that the instructors provided anything useful in either class other than forcing me to read the material on a schedule so I could pass the tests. I had hoped for more interaction and a deeper look at the material than I could have provided myself by simply reading the text, but I didn't get it.
Both these classes were disappointing. I'd think hard and investigate fully before I took another class online.
-- Cardinal Fang
On the other hand, the women's studies class I've taught online now for 4 semesters is just getting better and better. While it is a writing intensive course (our transfer articulation agreements mandate that), the content is so compelling that I don't just feel like a grading machine.
The online discussions are a bit overwhelming: we hit 3000 posts at the 12th week, with 4 more weeks to go in the semester. The students are usually surprised by how much reading is involved, but the retention is similar to my f2f version.
(ah, I seem to be able to post on this computer. couldn't get it to work at home)...
Biggest hassles are connecting into institutional databases, portals, etc, but that is a nightmare no matter what you do. System stability is excellent, and some places run it off of a box under someone's desk.
Development, driven by Michigan State and Illinois U-C, seems to be emphasizing what is needed by the larger on-line community rather than its original core audience of physics, chemistry, and math.
I've never taught an entirely on-line course, but it seems to have all the tools needed for that and people committed to adding what is missing.
(I've been teaching cc online composition--along with f2f classes--for seven years.)
First, students are not anonymous in online courses that use Blackboard; their names are connected to all postings, submissions, etc., within that Blackboard course account.
I explain this to students at the f2f orientation, so they know that whatever (imagined) anonymity they're used to online is gone in our online class--everyone always knows who you are. As a result, I've had maybe two instances of uncivil/inappropriate postings in those seven years...fewer than in my f2f classes. :)
And students now get it: Another of the many benefits of the general rise in online literacy is the understanding that there really is no anonymity online; that's SO 2003, before people began to understand how you can be traced by your ISP.
I think the big issue with online learning is plagiarism. I've had only-in-an-online-class cases of wholesale plagiarism: having others do not just a student's formal papers but also his weekly homework. Obviously, in a f2f class, an instructor can tell that a student is doing his own daily/weekly work.
Out of five required units, the teacher managed to cover one. The material was incredibly simplified, the quizzes trivial, and the entire course a joke. The Board hired her to teach the web-bsed course while she was also teaching a full timetable, and expected her to develop the course materials as well. (No textbook was provided, as the computer could do that!)
Working for the Board myself, I saw some of the internal hype about this "new, innovative, cost-effective" way of teaching. Penny-pinching at the cost of the students, I'd call it.
Maybe it could be a success, with some students, if properly supported, but proper support is expensive -- the more so as you have to keep redeveloping your lessons to stay abreast of the changing software environment (or pay someone to do that).
Some notes: (1) students are very BOLD on line. They will challenge the structure of the course, your exams, your grading, your deadlines, you name it. I almost never get this in F2F classes. (2) My DL classes are more work... but the work is on my own time. For example, I can sit next to my kids while they do their homework and respond to my DL students' discussion postings... I don't have to be in my campus office. (3) In my department, we don't currently allow adjuncts to teach DL classes. We like our adjuncts to hang out with us at the office... thus, only the full-timers have DL options (though I suspect this will change soon as demand increases). (4)I tried a publisher's ePack this semester... I think it's overrated. (5) Finally, what I've found most interesting about my DL classes is that getting the structure just right is an on-going project as opposed to my F2F classes in which I might only change one or two things from semester to semester. I enjoy the challenge of that.
Yes. Quite generously, in fact.
There is certainly a good argument for open source. Some private software companies simply charge an annual fee to use the software. I mean, if the government of Brazil
went open source why not universities?
At the University of Toronto (Canada's biggest U) where I used to work part time doing technical support, open source was really in. Firefox and Thunderbird were strongly promoted over various other institutional email systems that different parts of the university try to use. I suspect that part of the problem is that certain Deals With The Devil are done (i.e. big donations to the Uni for exclusivity etc) or that some open source programs are not particularly well documented.
As far as "online classroom technologies," I admit to not having heard of an open source one as yet. That said, it seems like a customizable forum software (PHPbb - possibly?) could provide most of what would be needed. Access would be limited by course assigned passwords and the like. There could be a file area for lecture files, assignment descriptions and an obvious place to discuss relevant issues.
This seems like a good case where such major grant agency (e.g. Social Science and Humanities Research Council up here) should give a few million to some Education departments and some Computer Science departments and a solution could be developed. Or at least a possible solution. Maybe that's expecting to much though.
Many Microsoft IT people fear getting their dept. budget cut if they go open source. Also, they can always play the finger pointing game between multiple vendors when there are problems.
Open Source aware IT staff tends to look at the system as a whole. They look at problem as *THEIRS* to fix, not for someone else to come in and @#$% things up even more.
Open Source IT staff will run something until there is a good reason to change. Microsoft IT staff get used to a constant upgrade cycle.
Ying and Yang.
Finally, Scholar360 is less expensive than both Moodle or Blackboard/WebCT!
Moodle is free and open-source, so I'm assuming you mean that Scholar360 is cheaper than hiring a hosting company to install and maintain Moodle for you. Which may well be true.
But it should be noted that there are companies that will install and support Moodle for your school, giving the tech guys that all important "someone to call when it breaks".
First the professors: they have run the gamut from the technically astute to the abysmally clueless, from those that followed the anal "online protocol" exactly to those who ran classes more like an AOL chat room, from those that wanted written assignments mailed to them to those that were fine with e-mail submissions, from those whose classes went off without a hitch to one poor woman who endured two tornado-spawning storms, an ice storm, several computer glitches on her end and a fire at the house next to hers (all during class time).
The students have generally been either fitting in a course they couldn't get in real life or working folks from the general area (I have consistently been the most distant of the distant learners, first 150 miles away, now more like 900).
The courses have been dwindling in number, thanks to budget restrictions forced by state legislator ineptitude and general economic malaise. Thus the project rather than 36 hours of coursework as I originally planned (also thus six years versus four).
Other issues: I'm in a unique situation in that my degree is being paid for by the Veteran's Administration's Vocational Rehabilitation program, and this has meant more paperwork and bureaucracy than the normal student endures. Sadly, this sort of thing doesn't always go smoothly at a distance, and you sometimes have to work harder to get the right person the right information at the right time.
If I had it all to do again? Eh, hindsight's 20/20, and if I'd known the program would be asphyxiated, I would have opted for an on-campus experience--if nothing else, it's a lot harder to ignore me in person!
I would suppose that, for people who can type conversationally, the spontaneity issue isn't much of a worry either; if you can carry on a conversation, you can lecture. But I'm not sure how many college professors, rooted in the past like hoary old half-dead trees, can uproot themselves and step into the brave new electronic world.
NO! And as an instructional designer assigned to work with faculty on their course development, it's a HUGE issue. It's ridiculous and cheap and makes getting materials from already over-worked faculty members next to impossible.