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?