I think this article is right on the money about the challenges of online learning– namely that most students wash out and that there is not enough support for struggling learners. I’d like to propose some solutions.
See– somewhere in the public excitement over MOOCs is the implicit promise that we can educate many more people for much less money by packing them into massive online courses. This has been done before– remember your 500-person lecture hall “Intro to Whatever-it-Was”course? MOOCs are the internet-scale version of those massive, impersonal, and uninspiring exercises. In MOOCs and megalectures alike, the high skilled/ highly motivated students do well, the struggling students wash out, and most students just do what they have to do to get their money’s worth and pass the course. Of course, since many MOOCs are free, there is much less incentive to stick with the course until the end.
The massive lecture was not created because it’s pedagogically effective– it’s just cheaper. Even putting one teacher in a room with 20 or 30 is more of an economic compromise than a sound educational decision. MOOCs are great if you look only at the economics of them– paying one teacher to lecture at 10,000 students is much more cost-effective than having her lecture to just 500. You can fire those expensive faculty, replace them with interactive websites, and everybody’s happy, right?
Looking at MOOCs merely for how the they can save us money obscures the possibility of how MOOCs can improve education– especially for struggling learners who need extra support to successfully access higher education.
What’s missing in many MOOCs is the only thing that works with struggling students– relationships. Students with low skills are less likely to stick with a challenging task after a history of past failures, and they need a “caring demander” to continuously hold them to high expectations and provide frequent, timely support when they need help.
In fact, personalized timely feedback and frequent interaction with the teacher is more important to student success than the quality of lecturer, the quality of the textbooks, or the use of technology in courses. Read that again. All that time you’re spending perfecting and delivering your lectures doesn’t improve student learning. Interacting with you, does.
What’s exciting to me about online learning is that it enables faculty to automate the less effective activities (lecturing, exams, grading) so they can spend more time interacting with students (discussions, online office hours, targeted interventions when students fail assignments.) In short, online teaching tools let teachers spend more time on students and less time regurgitating content.
Instead of continuing the myth that “lecturing is teaching”, faculty can organize readings, lectures, videos, and interactive assignments into thematic units so students can choose how they want to consume the required content. They can build multiple “formative assessments” into courses so students can continuously check their understanding and ask questions before taking “for credit” assessments. They can use discussion boards and collaborative documents to ask questions, share ideas, and contribute to a communal “knowledge base” for others to benefit from.
Learning Management Systems can generate a steady stream of data about student achievement that faculty can monitor to see when students are falling behind and schedule 1:1 or small group review sessions. As in MOOCs, the advanced students can work along at their own pace while struggling students have more access to real human beings who care about their progress, hold them to high standards, and give them the support they need to reach those standards.
Online learning tools do hold the promise of a high quality education for everyone, but only if the focus is on improving student achievement, not saving dollars. Approaching online learning as a strictly money-saving venture trades “good” for “good enough”.
Don’t “Do More with Less”– DO MORE!
While I’m re-imagining the education system, I’d like to see more caring adults working in tandem with technology to produce better educational outcomes than we presently see. Though it’s common for teachers to wear many hats, there is more important work that needs to be done in a class than any one person can do. I know that I did many things right as a teacher but still experienced nagging doubts over the way my personal shortcomings affected student learning. Could this be why 46% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years? I think that courses should be taught by diverse teams with complementary strengths to improve overall outcomes.
- A content expert, focused on curating high quality educational materials and assessing proficiency in course objectives. Many educators are content experts first and educators second, downplaying their weaknesses in pedagogy, technology, or interpersonal skills. While this is valuable, it is only part of the puzzle.
- An instructional designer, fluent in the tools of online learning and trained in effective instructional techniques. This person’s area of focus is how to use technology more effectively in education, and helps design high quality online learning modules featuring excellent content and opportunities for interaction and reflection.
- An interpersonal expert, with highly-trained communication and mediation skills to promote interaction between students and faculty and to play the role of the “caring demander”. This person ensures that the course is personalized to students and bears the psychic load of staying emotionally invested in students’ success– even when it involves challenging meetings or explaining content multiple ways.
I believe that more courses should feature all of these diverse skills– even if it means that it takes more than one person to deliver them all. Ideally, this approach might make it possible to cost-effectively provide a higher level of service to a greater number of students by combining the strengths of the technology with the power of caring teachers. Even if it only improved outcomes for the same number of students at the same cost, it would be an unqualified win all the same.