Reflections On Online Learning From An Online Educator

In 2004 I began teaching my World Geography course online . That is to say, my course was fully 100% online. Many students expect faculty to use Blackboard at both institutions where I teach. Students expect to find at least a syllabus. Many students expect to find some semblance of notes, as well. From the inception of Blackboard at my employers I have used a Learning/Course Management System (L/CMS) to help administer my courses. I post examples from work performed during class, traditional lecture notes, and use Blackboard for posting grades. At 2011, the vast majority of students expect to be able to manage their grades on Blackboard.

I was an early adopter of Blackboard. I was an early user of Powerpoint for augment lectures with visuals and media. I balked at first, though. Students in my traditional classes told me I needed to get my grades on Blackboard. I said, “no, I don’t.” Students wanted copies of my lecture notes. I said, “You can’t have them. I poured hundreds of hours into developing my notes and lectures and I am not going to give them away.”

That attitude lasted a month, or so. I read a lot of articles written by faculty on both sides of the CMS fence. I finally decided that those faculty on the “Don’t give anything away & I refuse to use technology” fence were not progressive and not thinking downstream into the future. Those faculty that adhered to parochial teaching methods were doing no one any favors I determined, and regardless of my own personal feelings about my time and effort, the real benefactors of my work were my students. Thus, why hold back knowledge if you are charged with disseminating knowledge?

Therefore I opted to give away everything, and even more than that.

I found and posted YouTube videos by Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. He is like a Food Geographer, traveling the world, examining cultures through their culinary habits. I posted Andrew Zimmern: Bizarre Foods, as he really gets down-and-dirty with local cultures and related culinary oddities.

University and colleges often hold workshops for incoming Freshman and Transfer Students to help engage better study habits. While in college, I attended these workshops, then held my own workshops as a Residence Hall Advisor. Now as faculty I decided to go and see what I could learn. I took the notes from these workshops, converted them to PDF, and posted to Blackboard.

I bought Camtasia and made many short lectures covering course topics, and posted those videos to YouTube, then embedded them into Blackboard. I think I have about 5 hrs worth of course videos, ranging from a couple minutes to about 10 minutes per episode. Finally, I scan pages of my own textbook to show students how I study our textbook, and outline my process. I want my students not to simply learn my content but I also want to help them be successful in all of their courses.

Yet, despite my efforts to improve my online content, many issues continue to subvert the learning experience of my online students.

Technology

Technology for online learning still sucks. Building an online course is like being a general contractor. You have to find and engage your own electricians, plumbers, architects, roofers, etc. You have to find the technology you want then figure out how to use that technology, how to integrate that technology into your CMS, and act as Tech Support for students when they need help.

Blackboard and Edmodo are helpful. Blackboard needs a complete re-write to implement HTML5. Blackboard is far too heavy in Javascript, and too click-intensive, and page refreshes are too slow. When managing an online course with 40-60-100 students, editing grades, editing content is painful. Edmodo is where Blackboard needs to be, in terms of interface.

Blackboard has lots of modules for implementing interesting technology. However, the technology is heavily reliant upon browsers, Java, the network backbone, and student comfort with technology. Then, add the learning curve for faculty to learn the technology, and time required. Anecdotally, I hear faculty not willing to try simply because of all the other times constraints put upon us; who has time to learn something new, when we have to manage research, teach, write grants, publish papers, and sit on some bullshit committee?

The Internet is full of cool technology, neat tools. The problem is that of trying to find the right tool, the best tool, at Home Depot, to help build my content. Each tool has some value, but some tools are better than others. The vast majority of faculty do not have the technical experience, or time, to explore the universe of tools to put in their Developer Toolbox. They would adopt a complete toolbox if one existed. Blackboard might say, “Hey, I exist!” Yep, you do, but your toolbox weights 1,000lbs and needs a truck to drive it around.

I read a blog recently where the author suggested that every faculty person needs to know how to edit images, edit video, edit audio, create and manage Powerpoint, needs to know how to edit HTML, and so forth. Really? Maybe in a perfect world. While I would like faculty to know these topics, no way in the current world will that ever happen. Not realistic.

Like Steve Jobs might say, “If you have to click more than twice, its bullshit. If I can’t learn how this works in 5 minutes, it’s bullshit.”

Students

Online students can exhibit a far greater range of problem behaviors than those students enrolled in traditional courses. I say that because students attending a traditional course, an “in-person” course, tend to come right from high school, or a junior college transfer, and are mentally on-board with the traditional course atmosphere and thus the range of issues students have with their own learning fall within traditional “dog ate my homework, internet ate my homework – my grandmother died – my other grandmother died – my other other grandmother died,” and so forth.

I have noticed changes over the last 5-6 years. Students wanting more time because of diagnosed or undiagnosed mental diseases or defects, single-parenthood, guardianship of minors, or adults returning to college after decades away and the changes in higher education are daunting, plus learning technology simply to do coursework.

Also, over the last 10 years or so, incoming Freshman are increasingly less prepared for college. Poor writing skills, poor reading and comprehension skills, and poor math skills are endemic, actually epidemic, across the United States. The idea of constantly rewarding students for engaging in basic educational behaviors, like reading, activities they should be doing as fundamental education pursuits, is simply stupid, destructive, and establishes a dangerous precedence of expectation of being rewarded for doing your job. You don’t get a raise for doing you job; you get a raise for doing your job, plus going above and beyond, by exhibiting a pattern of behavior of self-motivated improvement and creativity, and discipline.

Students mistakenly think online courses should be easy. In some ways they are correct. Students take an online course, find that offering is not rigorous, and take another. Less work, less effort, same or better grades than an in-class course. Parallel to that, students talk amongst themselves, sharing online experiences, leading to pervasive feelings of lower expectations for online courses. I try as much as possible to mirror my in-class course online. The content of both courses is precisely the same, same lecture notes, same activities, same exams. What I get in response is noticeable student anger.

  • “Your course is too rigorous for a 100-level course.”
  • “This is not supposed to be a graduate course.”
  • “This is the hardest college course I ‘ve ever taken.”
  • “This is the hardest online course I’ve ever had. I will never take another one.”
  • “This course takes too much time.”

Do I get it right? No. Not all the time. An online course is always a work in-progress. Every course has to be a work in progress, though. I add/remove content. But, mostly add. I strip away the griping and complaining from student comments and feedback, look for common themes in criticism, and make improvements. The course I have now is a result of years of tuning using student feedback and workshops.

I tell my students to pay attention during the course, keep track of what they like, and what they don’t. When the time comes, put those ideas into the course evaluation survey. Then, do this for all your courses. Help the educational system improve.

I know where these students are coming from, though. As a habit, I survey my in-class students about their experiences with online courses they’ve taken. What I find is interesting, and explains why my online students are so upset with me.

  1. Online instructors reduce the number of assignments. I have spoken to both faculty and students about this. Faculty say that to reduce time dealing with online courses, the number of assignments has been reduced by at least 50%. Students report pretty much the same.
  2. Online instructors reduce the coverage of material. Faculty report limiting chapters covered, while students report being taught 50%-75% of the total course material.
  3. Online instructors reduce the number of exams and quizzes. Students reported being given writing assignments in lieu of exams, and faculty report using a few quizzes, or one or two exams to assess student learning, with a writing assignment tossed in.

I realize these results are not from a scientific study and are anecdotal. However, I have taught over 84 sections of online courses since 2004, and have taught in-class courses every semester since 1997 at four different institutions, therefore know a little bit about what I speak. I have also taught accelerated courses, summer courses, and hybrid courses over that time period.

Now, to be fair, not all online students fair poorly. About 15% of my students do very well. In fact, some of my best students lately have been my high school students taking my college course. These students share similar characteristics.

  1. The 15% are self-starters. They provide their own motivation. Or, in the case of my high school students, a teacher/mentor is present to prod them. Though, I am told, even those students are pretty self-motivated. 90% of my high school students have been A/B students in my course.
  2. The 15% are committed. These students study their online courses just as they would a traditional course.
  3. The 15% schedule and plan. These students read the syllabus, read the calendar of assignments, make notes on daily planners, or Google Calendar regarding due dates. They educate themselves regarding course requirements and plan accordingly.

In other words, successful students are probably successful people. People that don’t manage well the details of their lives will find themselves also at odds with their own education.

Faculty

Faculty tend not to be helping the online situation, oddly enough. By diluting their online course offerings, these faculty cheat other faculty and students. They cheat me. When students take my course after taking a diluted course, I become the problem in their eyes. After I educate them about how they’ve been cheated, a few students are then still angry, but at least not at me. Most students are still upset because they merely want the grade and hours on their transcript and don’t care about the money or time spent on a 50% education.

They cheat students. Students take out student loans to pay for their education. Then, they enroll in an online course, or a hybrid course, pay full price, and get 25%-50% less than what they paid for. Students then earn some grade and hours that bears little resemblance to competency.

Cheat may be too harsh. Not really their fault; like blaming the messenger, or a police officer for following directions.

Last year, after teaching a number of 5-week courses, listening to students complain, and literally receiving a death threats and threats of violence against me from students with behavioral issues, I told my employer I could not in good conscience continue to support teaching the 5-week courses. I informed the administration that these courses were doing no one any favors, that students were being robbed, charged for a full course and only receiving 50%, if that, and receiving grades that didn’t accurately reflect any competency. Students didn’t really care, come to find out.

Many non-traditional students need grades or a decent GPA to continue receiving financial aid, health insurance, or income support. As long as they pass, or receive a C or better, their financial supports are maintained. Who cares if they didn’t really learn anything? That is not the point, in their immediate frame-of-reference. Having groceries and health insurance is the immediate concern.

Administration

Faculty that cheat others do not necessary cheat their institution. In fact, I submit that by turning a blind-eye to course dilution, institutions provide de facto support for course dilution. Institutions get paid; follow the money trail, as they say.

Students obtain student loans. The institution receives the loan payment, keeping some to pay for tuition, fees, and passes the balance to the student. Offering online courses encourages more students to enroll. Thus the population of paying customers increases, translating into more revenue for the institution.

Complicate this calculus by cutting education budgets for higher education, which encourages institutions to find other revenue streams. Higher Education tuition increases, and fees increase. Online courses offer a cheap way of offering more “products” without increasing overhead costs. Actually, the overhead is passed along to faculty, in the form of administrative mandates to departments to increase online course offerings. Or, offer 5-week “accelerated” or “hybrid” courses, which encourage faculty to teach an entire semester in 5-weeks or 8-weeks.

No one honest with themselves can say that the education received in a 5- or 8-week course is equal to that of a 15-week semester, caveat being that a two-meeting 8-week course could match a 15-week course.

Thus, administrators are complicit in diluting education. And, I cannot say that reduced Federal funding is the main driver, though, again, Congress is unwitting conspirators in the dilution of education.

Administrators do not overtly encourage course dilution. Dilution occurs when administrators mandate more online course offerings. Deans and Chair are then charged with making this happen. Faculty that are already charged with full teaching loads, teaching additional courses to accommodate department understaffed due to budget cuts, charged with doing research, publishing, and conducting community outreach and service learning activities are then saddled with moving a course to an online format.

Moving a course to an online format has a very high upfront cost in time and effort, to be done correctly. In order to satisfy the mandate, faculty post PDF notes, a writing assignment or three, a mid-term and a final exam. They do what they can given the time constraints.

Conclusion

Make no mistake I am not putting myself on a pedestal, hopefully my comments do not communicate that. I am simply passing along anecdotes from working in a teaching environment.

I also paint with a broad brush. There are faculty who are doing admirable work, make no mistake.

Online learning is in its infancy. Merely because online offerings have been around for several years does not mean online courses are anywhere near mature. Some places are getting online learning right; some faculty are getting online learning right. Online learning has yet to really scratch the surface of education, though. And, that is a significant concern.

Everyone from paying students, faculty, and Congresspeople are concerned with online learning. Public universities are concerned about competition from for-profit universities. Students are concerned their degrees obtained from for-profit universities aren’t worth the parchment they are printed on. Online course quality is all over the map, too.

Students taking an online course may represent a population of students not found in a tradition classroom environment. They suffer from the same lack of preparedness for college education. Additionally, they may not be organized. Online students may not be self-motivated enough to manage their own education. Online students may have families and jobs that limit their hours of participation. Online students may have physical challenges, being visually or physically impaired. Online students may be soldiers abroad, inmates, or high school students. Online students may lack the bare minimum of technical skills. I have had students that bought a computer precisely for my online course, not knowing how to use a mouse, a browser, or Blackboard.

I’m not being insulting, I am being descriptive.

I’m sure some might find my comments insulting, demeaning, might challenge me about my own commitment towards education. That’s fine. If you read the byline of my blog, I don’t expect nor want everyone to agree.

But, if you feel personally challenged by my comments I suggest you examine yourself first, don’t react with emotions or feelings – those will undermine your logic and reason.

Hey; Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Your feedback is greatly appreciated!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s