Tuesday, June 26, 2012


An Open Letter to Selective Colleges

Dear Selective Colleges,

You know I’m a fan.  I’m a proud grad of one of your number, and I’m glad to report that my community college has a strong track record of sending students your way, where they’ve done markedly well.  So I’m writing this in the spirit of constructive criticism.

As you know, you guys aren’t getting any cheaper.  Community colleges aren’t either, but since we’re starting from a much lower base, the cost gap between what you charge and what we charge grows larger every year.  The very best of our students -- as you know -- come here more because of cost (or high school record) than because of a lack of ability.  The pipeline from a good community college honors program to a selective liberal arts college is a great option for the strong student who may have been underrated.  I’m glad that the pipeline has been open, and I hope to open it even more in the next few years.

That said, though, we need to talk about online classes.

Many of your number -- I won’t name names, you know who you are -- simply will not accept online courses in transfer.  This is starting to become a real problem.

In the community college world, online education is the area of rapid growth.  It’s where the students are going, and some of us are getting good at it.  It helps address the very real scheduling issues that non-traditional students bring to the table.  For something like an honors course or a special-interest 200 level course, it can help put together a critical mass of students who otherwise couldn’t all meet at the same time.  (That’s why we’ve never been able to run honors classes at night.  An online honors option could give the stronger evening students a chance to participate.)  

Innovation at community colleges faces obstacles that don’t exist at other levels.  There’s the obvious issue of funding, of course, but there’s also the question of transferability.  We can’t experiment with courses in a transfer major if the destination college won’t accept them.  

I can understand where the policy came from.  In the beginning, online courses were unproven and sometimes identified with the more vocational or opportunistic parts of higher ed.  But that’s just not true anymore.  When MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are offering classes online, it’s hard to argue that nobody reputable takes the format seriously.  Years of studies show that online learning outcomes rival those of in-class courses (and hybrids are even better).  And in some cases, it’s getting more difficult for students to avoid online courses.  For a whole host of reasons, the market is shifting.  Even very strong students take online classes.  You can tell who they are by looking at their GPA’s.

I understand that some faculty style themselves proud docents of the Way Things Were When They Were Young, and/or the Guardians of Virtue.  But too much reverence for the past means missing out on the future.  In 2012, it’s difficult to take seriously the argument that anything online must, by definition, be inferior.  As more students take online classes, holding the line against them will progressively shrink the pool from which you can draw.  Why you’d want to do that, I have no idea.

With all due respect, the ground is shifting from under you.  It’s time to shift with it.

If you can do that, I can promise that we’ll keep right on sending our annual cluster of alarmingly talented and driven students.  



Dean Dad

Way to say it, DD!! You're right on.
Why do classes need to be identified as online on a transcript at all? What about classes that are partly online, partly not? Do the transcripts then give a percentage?
Excellent article. About the only thing you left out was an allusion to "correspondence course", which got most of its reputation from dubious proctoring.

The biggest issue for on-line courses remains proctoring and the identification of the student actually taking the test (an issue in some athletic scandals), although lockdown browsers and video ID and monitoring are in the process of making that type of testing more secure than a large classroom.

Similarly, those annoying Outcomes Assessments can be a big plus here, demonstrating equivalent performance for similar grades in the various formats of a class.

I'd suggest that you work on developing DeanDadCC-specific articulation agreements with the most likely selective colleges in your area. Then you only have to convince them once that on-line Honors Haiku is taught and assessed at SLAC level and that all assessments are secure. They might only accept it and not some other class taught on line (where discussion might not be at the same level). That works for my CC with a top rated selective college.
I suspect that online classes are the wave of the future in education. In a few years, any sort of class taught by an in-person instructor in a bricks-and-mortar classroom will become increasingly rare, an obsolete holdover from a previous era.

In pursuit of lower costs and higher enrollments, most colleges and universities will be tempted to convert much of their curriculum into online offerings. About the only schools which will still be able to afford to offer courses taught by an onsite instructor will be the very elite universities such as Harvard or Princeton, or the snootiest of the SLACS.

Online courses offer a severe challenge to faculty employment. In an online environment, why do we need all of those tenured faculty members? They can be easily replaced by remotely-located instructors and supported by banks of tutors located in call centers in Bangalore. Most of these remotely-located instructors will probably be poorly-paid part-timers, although a few superstars could actually offer online courses.

Online courses may quickly become canned offerings, with instructors becoming performers who merely read the works of others to their students, leading to a loss of academic freedom and an overall de-skilling of the teaching profession. In fact, there is no requirement that the remotely-located instructor even be alive--I can imagine an online physics course taught by the late Richard Feynman, put together from some of his taped lectures.

But how do you offer laboratory courses online? Some experiments can actually be simulated by increasingly-sophisticated software programs, but can everything be replaced by a computer simulation? Would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who took all his courses online? Would you want to fly on an airplane whose pilot got his training entirely on the flight simulator? Somewhere, somehow, a student needs ultimately to be faced with the recalcitrance of Nature, and be forced to learn from bitter experience that not everything works out the way it is described in a textbook.

Online education is no magic bullet, no instant fix, and no miraculous cost-saving. But it's coming, just like that oncoming train at the other end of the tunnel.
I'm pleased to report that the selective college at which I'm currently employed recently lifted its ban on transferring in credits from online courses. Partly because there was no way to tell which courses were online and which were face-to-face, but still, every little bit counts.
The SLAC I work at also counts online courses. As Catherine notes, typically we can't tell the difference on the transcript between an online course and classroom course. For courses with labs we do ask for information before approving but that is true of an in class courses.
Per a TED talk I heard recently, some online courses are not only cheaper, they are qualitatively superior to face-to-face instruction. This was the Khan Academy, which started out as a guy who was just tutoring his cousins in math. The cousins preferred his recorded lessons to in person chats, because they could stop and rewind without embarrassment. The Kahn approach is about absolute learning, regardless of seat time, which becomes the variable.

So the move to online isn't only cost driven, though that will be powerful.

PS. I've listened to a couple Feynman lectures, and they are a treat.
Online education is no magic bullet, no instant fix, and no miraculous cost-saving. But it's coming, just like that oncoming train at the other end of the tunnel.

Well – I guess I’m glad there are no pitchforks and torches on the internet. For low enrollment high cost programs, on-line learning can be a godsend. I used it to run a program in rural hospitals that allowed them to choose unlicensed members of their staff for training (online) that along with practical training at the hospital lead to licensure. No local college would have built a program meeting state requirements for that one person/hospital but by aggregating 10 rural sites, I was able to be both effective (100% licensure rate) and cost effective. No one had to leave their family or home to get the education they needed to move up. The hospitals retained loyal and smart employees who might otherwise have been forced to forgo advancement to continue working for an employer they like or move away to get the advancement they need. Bottom line, online ed saved those employees and their employers enormous amounts of money and time and enriched the community by allowing career advancement of its members. How is this a big scary train?

On-line courses are just another way of teaching. My problem with most discussions of on-line coursework is that people don't specify what they are talking about. Are you talking about asynchronous courses? Synchronous? Blended? How much feedback do students get? What kind of assignments do they complete? Are exams proctored, if so, how? The idea of articulation agreements is good but I’d love to see a tagging system for courses that specified all this info so that colleges would know what they were getting when they accepted a course. But as others have noted here, there’s no transcript notation that specifies that a class was on-line at my college so I’m not sure how anyone would know if you didn’t make a point to tell them.

In my field, numerous studies have shown that on-line students have comparable exam scores and rates of licensure/certification when compared to traditional students so I can’t help but see the benefits. Penalizing people for study on-line is discriminatoy in that it hits those in lower socioeconomic strata, women and minorities harder than other groups. Perhaps this is what the elite colleges are trying to achieve....
So, online courses are a great way for a high-value lecturer to specialize; they're the equivalent of formalizing the system where 2 classes a week are taught by a professor with great experience, and there's a discussion section lead by the TA on Fridays. I think that those systems can be quite effective.

But I don't see a lot of productivity gain from online coursework. When I taught, I had three categories of students -- those who just needed me to point them in the right direction with homework, reading, and tests, those who got some of the concepts but got over the hump with classroom and homework interaction, and those who (for various good and bad reasons) weren't in a place where my class could assist them. The first and last categories are unaffected by online coursework, but the middle one, it seems, requires the same labor-intensive interaction that is always required. It's good that we're shaving off some commute times here and there, but I'm not sure why everyone is so excited, I guess. It just seems like another tool.
Maybe I'm cynical, but I've noticed that registrars offices everywhere seem to do their level best to not count a single transfer credit.

Took a B.A. in another subject ten years back? On paper we'll say that we accept that for your gen ed requirements for this associate's degree but, in reality, we'll ask you for a copy of the course outline for each and every one of those elective courses. Let me tell you that not that many students, departments or even professors retain syllabi for that long of a time frame!
I don't deny that online classes can in certain situations be advantageous, since one can overcome the limitations in space and time that are present in conventional classrooms

However, I think that the advantages offered by an online course are most applicable in niche applications, such as Ivory describes. I think that there is a danger that college and university administrations seeking instant cost-savings might be tempted to rush willy-nilly into adopting online courses for virtually their entire academic curriculum.

Some students can really thrive and prosper in an online curriculum. But those students who can flourish in the online environment need to be good organizers of their time, must be able to work more independently, and need to be able to overcome the temptations to procrastinate.

Not every student can profit by an entirely online course, and a lot of students really need an in-person instructor that they can talk to face-to-face in real time, and they need the day-to-day interaction with their fellow students. Such an interactive environment is difficult to accomplish in a purely online environment, where students can all too easily become isolated from each other and from their instructor.

There is another potential problem. Faculty members involved in online teaching can all too easily become invisible to the administration, making it especially difficult for them to obtain promotions or salary raises. How would the promotion and tenure process work for a faculty that is largely remotely-sited? In my former job at Large Telecommunications Company, programmers who worked remotely at home or feature testers who worked in the evenings or on weekends were not daily seen or noticed by their bosses, and they suffered when yearly performance review came around. As one of my former bosses said, the last thing you want to do is to become invisible.

No, I don't regard online education as some sort of existential threat, such as an asteroid impact. All I am asking that schools do not rush headlong into converting their courses entirely into online versions, without thinking things through and considering the possible negative possibilities of doing so.
@Janice-Please consider that the Registrar's Office may not (and probably isn't) the one making all the decisions on what transfers and what doesn't. Established transfer rules as well as state policy may have limited what you brought in. There is also the issue of accreditation.
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