How Online Courses Improve Quality, Reluctantly
How Online Courses Improve Quality, Reluctantly
Here is a jewel of an article which clearly reflects many of the most important facets of online education. Its title, The Reluctant Online Professor, tells us a lot about the prevailing attitudes of many faculty about online learning. But the article is really about how to create a higher quality course which produces better learning experiences. (Read the article as if it had the title "How to Create a Higher Quality Course" to see what I mean.) Look in particular for these key elements:
- Decision to "re-engineer" the course instead of trying to transport an existing course to a new medium.
- Increased resources and support: she had access to a mentor, an online course design expert, and an instructional technologist, and she spent almost a year designing the new course.
- Learning by experience: while developing the course, her experience as an online student "strongly colored" her course design.
- Faculty-initiated decision to use an "active learning paradigm" which "eliminate[d] traditional lecturing whenever possible but was a great way to increase learning and academic rigor for the course."
- Faculty excitement and engagement in the development process ("my early reluctance of online course [sic] had turned to excitement").
- A course design which uses a variety of activities, media, technologies, and learning approaches while providing navigational clarity ("the course followed a uniform path each week") and scaffolding for new technological (screenshot movies) and communication (how to blog) skills.
- The use of student-generated content as an active learning/engagement strategy ("the students themselves built the meat of the course").
- Greater attention to incorporating student characteristics into course design and delivery, for instance by creating discussion teams with "a heterogeneous mix of majors and work experience."
- Identification of course elements which did not work well and needed improvement, thus the beginnings of a continuous improvement process.
The results were that "the level of learning was much higher than in previous years [of onsite offerings" -- one student commented that "I don't know how this course could be taught as effectively in the classroom." Exactly -- the classroom is not designed to maximize interaction, so it is not surprising that the professor's "previous attempts with full-class discussions had not worked out well at all" whereas small-group discussions online worked better.
With this frame in mind, now consider the article's title and the author's colleagues. Why was she initially reluctant to teach online? Why did her colleagues refuse to go along with the adaptation? I think that the following factors are crucial:
1) She was initially reluctant because of a bad experience with online teaching seven years ago. I suspect that she did not have the same level of support then.
2) She reflected extensively and a experienced a bit of personal transformation as a result. By contrast, her colleagues (as she characterizes them) were reflexive -- they made judgments without exploring the alternatives.
3) The resulting benefits are experienced after the fact, but the promise of such benefits ahead of time is not (yet) enough. Moving to improve quality (whether via online or not) requires a catalyst of some sort -- whether personal, institutional, or some of both -- which overcomes the existing system inertia.
This is not a perfect story. The course was developed because of an administrator's plan rather than as the product of a joint consensus between faculty and administration. In this case, it appears that the administration was right, but one can also find examples where faculty are right to resist (e.g., when faculty are mandated to put courses online without adequate support). Some might argue that the course is overengineered; perhaps she'll simplify it in future offerings. The course assessment process needs improving, as she notes; perhaps find out more about how the learning experience impacted students and herself? And not every course needs to require daily student posts or other forms of interaction. But it's a great story.
Iâ€™d also like to see how the loop gets closed. How will this experience affect how she teaches her onsite course? Will it (help) move her colleagues in the same direction? IMO, it would certainly help if such efforts were framed as quality improvement instead of (just) moving to a new medium. Imagine if every course, online or classroom, reflected this level of commitment to quality teaching and learning.
Finally, it's important to remember that different courses can be engineered for different purposes. Some courses don't need as much engagement and can support a larger class size. (If this is not true, then why is there not a huge hue and cry about the millions of students who are currently sitting in large lecture halls as I type/you read this?) More importantly, her course is not a template, but is one of a huge number of possible effective designs. Higher education faculty are noted for wanting to make their courses their own, hence the resistance to teaching courses created elsewhere. Online education fits quite well with this desire; it simply provides faculty with a much greater canvas and palette for doing so.
Thanks to David Shoemaker of eCornell for making me aware of this article.