I urge the Board of Education to devise a mechanism for monitoring the quality of online courses at all levels in Connecticut.
This is important, because we have crossed two turning points in online delivery, as indicated in the charts to the right, courtesy of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (http://ctdlc.org).
Notably, there are now more students taking courses online and more courses offered online than in traditional classroom settings.
My expertise is in the area of distance education but it doesn’t take an academic to see that the quality of the majority of online courses pales in comparison to their onsite equivalents. If you have a friend or family member who is taking an online course, ask them for a tour of the “course shell” (or website) used to interact with their instructor and classmates. Most likely, you’ll be underwhelmed.
Students love online learning, because it is convenient and accommodates their busy schedules. Unfortunately, the majority of their teachers (with notable exceptions) haven’t done an adequate job of adapting the onsite versions of their courses to the online medium.
At present the majority of distance education courses are implemented using text-based “learning management systems” aka “LMSs” such as Blackboard or Moodle. It is not the LMSs that are at fault; rather it is the manner in which they are misused. Instructors treat them as content syndicators wherein material is dispensed via a website that is primarily textual in nature. In rare instances they may pepper the content with some uploaded images, and perhaps include the obligatory PowerPoints that accompany assigned textbooks. They might even be savvy enough to include clickable “hot links” to related websites or a relevant YouTube video. A submission aggregator function such as a message board area, file attachment widget or “digital drop-box” is provisioned for student interactions and deliverables and is the primary means by which they obtain feedback.
Those who have taught in this manner will attest that the process is extremely labor intensive. This is because most of us are lousy typists. Imagine having to type everything you had to say for the duration of a semester. The upside is that students and teachers alike tend to be pithier—thinking more about what little they have the wherewithal to express via hunting and pecking or thumb typing.
Asynchronous text-based systems were the only feasible means of conducting online education in the 1990s, due in part to the lack of adequate bandwidth to support rich media interactions such as voice, video, animations, or BLOBs (Binary Large OBjects such as high resolution images) and in part to the immaturity of LMS technologies. The majority of institutions of higher learning now recognize that they cannot compete in the contemporary education market space without online options for study. Unfortunately, they have tended to adopt lagging-edge text-centric technologies that have the functionality of systems from the prior millennium.
For those on the bleeding edge, the LMS is now merely a component of contemporary social media-centric solutions that allow for high definition video conferencing, screen sharing, white boarding, text chats, cloud document sharing, and rich interactions. Today the emphasis should be on collaboration, not merely content dissemination.
For example, in my Harvard course this past spring, 25% of the grade was determined by the quantity and quality of tweets during lecture. Students were expected to subscribe to the Twitter “back channel” for the course and to sustain a dialog among themselves, the professor and the teaching fellows.
This approach provided for a rich parallel metacognitive narrative view of the participants’ collective mindset. It also gave airtime to those whose raised hands were not noticed, or whose questions would be obsolete by the time they got called upon.
I transitioned completely to online teaching using high definition video conferencing two years ago and can report that the experience is commensurate with that of an onsite class. The gestalt is in many respects superior to a traditional classroom experience, because everyone has a “front row seat” in “Brady Bunch” view and there are no wall flowers (see screen snapshot, below). Whatever might be lacking in the sense of presence is made-up for in convenience (no need to hire a baby sitter and drive 50 miles on a moonless night to and from class in blizzard conditions), comfort (smoking, drinking, eating, standing or stretching are encouraged during lecture), and responsiveness (all students have higher bandwidth through their home connections than they’d ever have via shared access in a campus-based classroom). For those who are bashful about being seen online, I counter that were they having a bad hair day in a traditional classroom, they’d have no choice but to be seen by classmates. At least in the online setting they can opt-out of the video stream by turning off their webcam.
Teaching in this manner is much easier than using the text oriented LMSs presently in vogue. It is more akin to the shtick most instructors are acclimated to; they have a captive audience, can just talk, and “do their thing” face-to-face, rather than type the equivalent of a semester-long novel.
I also prefer the designation “flexible learning” to “distance education.”
The term “flexible” is better than “distance” because many onsite classes are augmented by online interactions in what is termed “blended” delivery mode. The term “learning” is more student-centric and the instructor’s role is more akin to that of a facilitator. In fact, I don’t lecture—those are prerecorded and in keeping with the flipped classroom model, assigned as homework. “Class-time” is for discussions, clarifications, demonstrations, sharing-out among participants, and group-work.
An Intermediate Solution
Curiously, two things accreditation teams never do are (1) check levels of access to university online library “holdings” (the degree of access varies by an institution’s subscription levels) and (2) audit online classes. Ironically, these are becoming the two largest determiners of program and institutional quality. They’d be underwhelmed if they did.
In that most Connecticut institutions are unlikely to transition from the prevailing asynchronous model of text-based interactions, in the near-term, I propose that the state advocate for adoption of a rubric for quality assurance in online programs.
The Quality Matters Program is one solution that has garnered a national following (see http://www.qmprogram.org). It is intended to raise the bar in asynchronous online instruction and is adaptable to blended (onsite plus online) classes. I think it is a bit mired in the anachronistic asynchronous paradigm, but its use would surely improve the status quo in online education.
May I suggest a task force to address this issue?