College Writing, Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy

Understanding Online Education

Throughout my own college education I didn’t take a single online class. For both my graduate and undergraduate degrees I attended small liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on small classes, strong teaching, and close personal attention. Neither of them offered any online classes at the time, much less fully online programs. But when I was ABD I returned to teach full time at one of them as a Lecturer, from 2004-2008, and one year the college faced the Avian flu — remember that? In response, the college asked its faculty to design courses that would allow students to complete their semesters online should the college have to close unexpectedly. So this Coronavirus situation has been faced before. These contingency plans have been considered in the past, if not implemented, so it seems appropriate to revisit what online education is, how it works, and common misconceptions about it as many colleges across the country are actually closing now and moving courses online at the last minute.

My first experience of an online class was in fact in response to a mini-crisis: I was dropped into an online graduate class last minute due to the unexpected death of a faculty member. I started teaching in my first full-time Assistant Professor position in the Fall of 2008, and due to that unexpected death, I had to cover an online graduate class the Spring semester of that year, before I started full time. Needless to say, with my prior educational background I was deeply skeptical of online education. However, as I continued on with that institution I typically taught at least one online class per semester out of a four course load and at least two over the summer, always at the graduate level. I then went on to lead the successful redesign of a fully online Master of Humanities degree program, which I then Chaired, in addition to the numerous online classes I’ve developed from scratch and taught. That experience has changed my perception of online learning.

The most common misperception about online classes is that they’re low quality — that they’re somehow worse instructionally because they’re online. That perception is mistaken, but it exists for a reason. The original major online programs were developed and expanded by for-profit colleges and universities such as the University of Phoenix, which had over 600,000 students at one point. The truth is that for-profit colleges and universities themselves are the problem, having the lowest graduation rates, the lowest retention rates, the worst employment numbers for their graduates, and the highest student loan default rates. It doesn’t matter if their programs are fully seated or fully online: they get the same results.

But since the for-profit higher educational model is an abject failure with either seated or online classes, it’s not the class format that’s the problem. I’d like to emphasize a core idea that I think applies to pedagogy across the boards: there is no magic bullet when it comes to teaching. There is no one model that works best in all circumstances, for all students, at all times. The truth is that different pedagogical models have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing one over the other involves a tradeoff: you sacrifice the benefits of one kind of pedagogy for the strengths of another. That tradeoff needs to be defined in terms of the student population.

How do we understand that payoff for different student populations? A few fundamental principles might help at this point.

  1. It’s not the format, it’s the teacher. Some teachers teach better in online environments, some worse, and some about the same. But no format works well unless the teacher works well, and teachers are able to work well when they are supported with decent pay and benefits and treated with respect by administration and students. Many colleges and universities think online programs reliant upon adjunct instructors will be a cash cow for them, but they wind up spending more in advertising to continually recruit students to replace the ones they lose — and seldom get to the point where their program really grows in a sustainable way.
  2. It’s not the format, it’s the student. Online classes require more work, not less, from both teachers and students, and they require more independent work and discipline from the student. Some studies have shown that advanced students do better in online classes because they have more independence, while at the same time, experiments with online formats for general education curriculum at San Jose State University and elsewhere were met with horrible failure. Students who need more attention and direction from their teachers will do worse in online environments. Students who prefer to work independently will do better.
  3. Online classes are more rigorous, not less. In most online classes, the student must participate publicly every week. Almost everything is in writing: instructions, assignments, lectures, feedback, etc. There are usually some video components as well as PowerPoints, but unless it’s a math class, there’s a lot of reading and writing every week.
  4. Can teachers replicate their pedagogy in an online environment? The most common thing I’ve heard from teachers who have never taught online is, “I can’t replicate what I do in the classroom online.” Of course not. But once you start to teach online, you will find a new “instructional you” as you do so, and you’ll find it works the other way too: you can’t replicate what you do in an online class face to face either. I think this is part of why people think online classes are somehow worse: it’s hard to generate that same in-person chemistry. It’s like of like seeing a concert versus watching one on film. It’s hard to beat the live experience, but you can’t rewind and rewatch a live performance either. That’s the tradeoff, and studies indicate that the chemistry produced in an in-person classroom isn’t absolutely vital for student learning. Students think they learn more when the chemistry is there, but assessments of actual learning show otherwise.
  5. Spoken words help with reading comprehension for difficult texts. Reading out loud helps. Close, line by line readings of parts of difficult texts help. When I teach Paradise Lost, I often cover the first 40 lines this way, and students are able to read much better on their own afterwards. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, find YouTube equivalents or podcasts. There are many good resources already out there for many of our major works.

So, how should we react to moving our classes online? First, be patient. Students will be stressed, teachers will be stressed, IT people will be stressed, and the technology itself will be stressed — servers will get a lot busier all at once.

Next, realize that student learning occurs from what students do in and out of the classroom, not teachers. Teachers are facilitators of student learning, not the source of it. Classrooms don’t work like The Matrix: there’s no jack you can plug into the back of your head that will teach you to fly a helicopter. So while teachers are vital to learning, students need to understand learning only occurs for them when they do the work.

Finally, once it’s set up, get to work. Work on your classes at least a little bit every day until your work for the week is complete, and above all, don’t try to just do it all in one day and be done with it. You’ll get behind.

We will get past this.

Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Educating for Technological Literacy

Over the course of twenty years’ experience in higher education, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how technology interacts with students and faculty in an educational context, and I’ve heard quite a bit of salesmanship on the topic. I’ve come to see that most of the rhetoric is just that, salesmanship. Either someone is selling some tech or someone has bought into a sales pitch, even to the point where I’ve heard college presidents threaten to fire faculty who “don’t use technology in the classroom.”

This situation proceeds from a failure to understand how student learning works, what role technology can play in it, and how technology should be integrated into the classroom. I’m first going to suggest a way of thinking differently, and then I’m going to recommend concrete ways to implement that thinking.

I’d like to distinguish between two ways of thinking about technology and education:

  1. Students should be educated using technology.
  2. Students should be educated in the use of technology.

All of our problems come from confusing the first statement with the second.

Students do not necessarily need to be educated using technology. For example, students can receive the most important benefits of all text-based education using only a pad, a pencil, and a book. But they do need to be educated in the use of technology: what it is, how it works, what it means to use it, and how it interacts with society at large. This latter kind of education I’m calling technological literacy.

Believing that we need to educate our students using technology means we continually look for the latest new gadget that will finally replace our teachers, and that’s a misguided quest. But belief in the need for technological literacy is a curricular matter, something that considers what kind of education in technology students need for their majors and their future careers. For the most part, our applied sciences have this figured out, because the tech in many significant ways is the field, or is inextricably a part of it (AutoCAD, anyone?). But step outside of the applied sciences and the problems begin, and this distinction between educating students using technology and educating students in the use of technology becomes all important.

Requiring that we educate students using technology is, I think, badly misguided. For the most part, educational technology is always an additional barrier to learning, not only a supplement. It’s a wall between students and their interaction with the material, and anyone who has worked with educational technology knows that it always requires a learning curve (which is sometimes very steep), never completely delivers, sometimes doesn’t deliver at all, and often breaks down. As a result, we spend too much time worrying about the tech and not enough learning about our subjects and developing our skills.

This isn’t to say that educational technology isn’t a benefit. I don’t think I would want to work without a learning management system, which is an online system containing material associated with each course. These systems are just too practical in some ways, especially in giving students one place to access course materials such as the syllabus, the course schedule, their grade book, and regular communication from their instructors. But anyone who has worked with them knows all of their problems. And beyond that obvious application, there are some highly effective, specialized tools, such as computer programs that help students with dyslexia, that all students should have access to if needed.

So I’m not a luddite, but I think we need to be aware of the limitations and problems inherent in focusing on educating students using technology. There is a better way of thinking, however, which is focusing instead on educating students to use technology, or on technological literacy. We live our lives immersed in a variety of technologies that we cannot escape. As a result, we should know what these everyday technologies are, how they work, why we need them, and how they connect with the larger world. As a curricular matter, then, I think all college students should receive the following instruction as a regular part of their general education curriculum:

  1. Advanced training in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and their equivalents.
  2. A basic understanding of what networks are and how they function.
  3. A basic understanding of what databases are and how they function.
  4. A basic understanding of the internet, social media, and related privacy and access issues, instruction that should be connected to instruction in information literacy.
  5. A commitment to the application of this training and knowledge in upper division coursework.

Obviously, if we provide students education in the use of technology, we will be educating them using technology, but our focus will be completely different. It will be on technological literacy, a new form of literacy badly needed in today’s highly tech-oriented world but still very much lacking in most educational institutions.

Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Pedagogy, Understanding the Market

Podcast: James Rovira and the Anazoa Educational Project on Punkonomics

I’ve blogged quite a bit about a number of higher education topics, but what’s my own vision for higher education? I spent some time with Dr. Beni Balak, Professor of Economics at Rollins College, on the phone for his Punkonomics podcast to discuss the Anazoa Educational Project and my vision for higher education. Follow the link to listen to the podcast.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Podcast: Are College Students Being Prepared for the Workforce?

Have you enjoyed my blogging about workforce preparation and college education? If you like listening to podcasts, I was interviewed by Tim Muma about that topic on LJN Radio.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Why You Should Take Notes by Hand

Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.

This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted while working on their laptops. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. Students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — rather than thinking about the lecture.

On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

But in addition to this difference, students taking notes on laptops are indeed distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop, like Facebook, email, and chats.

These bad practices disseminate throughout educational institution. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (a result noted in one study). School administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.

To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen. Schools then have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.

As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say, the last fifteen to twenty years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the study.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion about these ideas:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck, but this tech is continually evolving. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, so this difference may also be related to how our brains and bodies work together. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
  • There are always exceptions. Some students need the support provided by electronic devices when note taking. Let’s just be careful not to define the rule by its exceptions.