Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Online Learning

I was waiting for some comments to come in before I wrote about this article on online courses from IHE. Sure enough, the curmudgeons were first to the punch, noting that online courses vary in quality and gosh, what about cheating. Thankfully, reasonable people pointed out that F2F courses vary in quality and gosh, students cheat in those too.

The main thrust of the article is actually about how to motivate and compensate faculty for teaching and developing online courses. Course releases and monetary compensation are among the incentives already tried and have somewhat succeed. Someone in the comments suggested allowing the development of these courses to count for tenure. I think that's a step in the right direction. The subtext of the whole discussion seems to be about whether these courses are "real" courses and whether the people who teach them are "real" faculty. Although I've never taught a class solely online, I know from experience that developing good online components for a courses takes a lot of time and thought. I've seen some places move to a model that has instructional designers take content given to them by faculty, create a course (usually in a course management system), and then the faculty member steps back in to teach it. It's an efficient model, cheaper than paying a faculty member to develop the course, and it is probably effective some of the time. Likely, it depends on how well the course is run by the faculty member.

It is still my contention that faculty should be more involved than that in the development of online materials. Yes, an instructional designer/technologist can be hugely helpful in guiding faculty through the process and perhaps even developing some of the resources and tools that may be used in the course. But I think the faculty member can't facilitate the course very well if he/she doesn't participate in developing it. I can't imagine stepping in to teach a course I didn't have some knowledge of.*

Many of the colleges mentioned in the article are trying to get current faculty to teach courses online. In some cases, I suspect that might be like teaching old dogs new tricks. I'm sure there are interested and motivated faculty who want to teach courses online, but once you've tapped those out, why not consider hiring full-time faculty who teach only or mostly online and who are compensated appropriately. Teaching online *is* different from teaching face to face. Yes, much of what one knows about learning and teaching translates, but motivating students, creating good assignments, monitoring participation, etc., are all pretty different online. Why not let people specialize in that? It's already happening at all online schools, some of which don't pay their faculty well or treat them fairly. Landline schools could stand out by having quality faculty teaching their online courses.

Edward Winslow is right, the change is coming and all the grumping in the world isn't going to stop it. With the economic downturn, are students really going to be willing to shell out for tuition and room and board when they could live at home, commute for a few classes and take the rest online? And what about all those people who've been laid off and need to retrain? Can they travel 500 miles away to go back to school? I don't think so. Online education is a great option for lots of people. Traditional schools can either take advantage of the situation or risk missing out and possibly going under.

* I know some places that have standardized syllabi and textbooks even for F2F courses. I don't mind so much using the same textbook and standardizing some elements of a course. But a standard course outline would drive me batty.