Sunday, May 24, 2009

Traditional universities clueless about online ed

Delivering education online has been the Holy Grail of the New Academia -- Holy Grail, because, nobody seems to have found the right formula yet. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a US publication avidly followed by universities brings two troubling reports: two major university systems -- the University of Illinois and the University of Texas are scaling back their once ambitious online ed plans. Illinois originally had planned to enroll 70,000 students as part of its Global Campus initiative. Nowhere near as many students have signed up, and the recession too has played a heavy hand. Why has student response been weak when, as one commenter states:
I don’t live anywhere near UI so what am I supposed to do now? Has anyone thought about the students that are in the GC programs? We aren’t all 20 yr.olds living off our parents and taking classes in the basement. We’re adult professionals that prefer the flexibility of online learning and the curriculum and programs offered through Global Campus.
It doesn't take a wild imagination to extend the above sentiment to a significantly large population. The same commenter adds:
Online education is growing at a faster rate than higher education as a whole. Online education fills a great need for those wishing to pursue an education and can’t or don’t want to attend face-to-face classes.
A part of the problem seems to be that traditional faculty are not accustomed to the very different androgogies that are appropriate for online and other 'distance' education formats. There exists a perception -- frequently matched by reality -- that distance education is a poor cousin of 'real' classroom style education. A big part of this perception is that the majority of the brightest students as well as those who show early promise follow the route of traditional education. Online education is largely the preserve of those who couldn't make it through the traditional route, either because they could not compete or because of financial and other constraints. There is certainly a discriminatory aspect to traditional education vis-a-vis distance education. On average, those who follow the traditional route have better access to financial resources during the period when students typical attend college than those who are compelled by circumstances to pursue distance education instead. A significant fraction, perhaps the majority, of distance education students are also working full-time, earning incomes to support a family.

Traditional faculty are typically not sympathetic to and prepared to accommodate and adapt to the very different sort of challenges faced by those who pursue distance education. The educational experience suffers and only the most motivated among distance education students who take full personal responsibility for their education are able to make the best of the available resources. The vast majority indeed acquire an inferior education -- or what passes for one. Faculty who understand both the medium and the audience cause some students to exult asin the comment below:
One of the main differences is EVERY Global Campus student participates each week in class discussions and we work in groups to promote the social cognition of learning. Does every student participate in each face-to-face class? No. Do we only look at Power Point presentations created by our instructor and listen to a lecture and take notes? No. We get to experience a multitude of media-enhanced technologies in addition to the required readings and writing assignments each week. We use technology as a vehicle to enhance our learning experience. The Global Campus courses engage students in the learning process and I applaud the professors that have taken the leap and veered away from the “sage on the stage” environment because that is NOT a learning experience for students.
Another telling comment:
Whatever you think of on-line and distance education, pro or con, remember that the medium always affects and sometimes shapes the content (yes, nod to McLuhan). Every technology has virtues and drawbacks, and the more complex the activity into which it’s drawn, the more unpredictable these are. The default position of faculty concerned about the integrity of education has to be first what might be lost, and only second what might be gained (this is not to ignore possible gains, but to recall the responsibility of faculty).
I just finished teaching a seminar for junior philosophy majors on Kant. Student presentations with discussion would simply not work online (though they would have greater successl with advanced graduate students). Rather than give a lengthy explanation, I’ll say just this: these juniors are often not confident enough to write what they think, but in the rapidfire give-and-take of classroom discussion they are willing to speak their minds. I also used a mix of on-line and on-paper commenting on successive drafts of their papers. If I really want them to take account of my remarks there is nothing like red-pen markings scrawled all over the page, as opposed to the neat “Track Changes” and “Comments” of MS Word. When they are far enough along in the project to be solidly oriented, however, it is easier and faster for me to use the on-line methods, and in fact, it seems to encourage the impression that I am taking their arguments seriously.
To be at least as effective as traditional education distance education needs to be carefully thought through. From reading the article, and more importantly, the comments, I come away with the impression that the University's attempt was a combination of ham-handedness and half-heartedness. An initiative of this kind requires committed efforts over a long period of time, imaginative leaders, a sizable budget, an acceptance of risk and failure and ongoing efforts at learning and evolution of the whole system. The University perhaps didn't have the stomach for that. Another comment from a different article about this issue:
The real problem is its time this entire campus, online and off, started thinking about LEARNING and the best way to facilitate it. Recording video of talking head lectures isn’t going to cut it for either the real or virtual campuses. We do need non-faculty learning facilitators (come up with your own titles). I think it would be great of the faulty got together, chose a new paradigm (or a small number of new paradigms) and get behind them for EVERYTHING we do. We are saddled with a huge physical campus – that can only seat so many students.
I especially like the term 'learning facilitator' because that's how I view teaching, in general, and especially teaching mature adults in 'distant' configuration. Once this sort of thing becomes established, the whole approach of professors and lecturers and educators will change -- I hope.

We see University of Texas pulling out of the marathon too, after having blown $22 million over a decade.

So why are online-education efforts suffering? First, a reality check: Pure-play for-profit online-education ventures like the so-called University of Phoenix have turned a profit for decades, else they would have shut down long ago. On the other hand, large, successful traditional universities have been struggling to make a mark with online education. What do Phoenix and their ilk know that traditonal universities don't?
  • For-profit education outfits focus on the bottom-line -- they run mainly those programs that attract enrollments and therefore turn a profit. They don't have any social agenda to satisfy, even if there is no return on their investment. Pretty soon, low-profit programs are weeded out and high-profit ones enhanced.
  • Traditional universities --especially the large ones that actually have the means to explore online education, such as Illinois and Texas -- hire traditional faculty who are recruited and rewarded principally on their capacity for research, rather than their talent for teaching or ability to experiment with alternative instruction methods. At such institutions, there is usually a disconnect between the staff that develop the distance education infrastructure (and often are not well-versed in either the subject or in androgogy and pedagogy) and the faculty that deliver courses (who frequently are all at sea with technology).
  • For-profit organizations live or die by the success of their online programs -- they have no alternative to fall back on -- and are compelled by circumstances to constantly innovate and evolve their systems and methodologies to meet the needs of their client base
  • Traditional universities tend not to view their students as 'clients' to be served -- indeed, such a term (and the mindset associated with it) is typically considered distasteful in the groves of academe: professors are scholars engaged in research and imparting knowledge and education the old-fashioned way in order to build thinking citizenry rather rather than equipping trainee-customers with skills which they could immediately apply to earning a living.
  • The core competency of traditional universities -- representing the collective competencies of its faculty -- lies in imparting education the traditional way; online education is usually an afterthought, an irritant, a requirement usually thrust by them by politicians who would like to be seen as implementing a social agenda.
  • Traditional universities are excel at educating the traditional student in the traditional manner; do a passable job of educating the non-traditional student; and know little or nothing about educating the non-traditional student in a non-traditional manner.
Little wonder, then, that traditional universities such as Texas and Illinois are struggling to justify their online efforts -- despite strong demand for such education -- even while private, for-profit outfits are laughing all the way to the bank.

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