Distance Learning: Lowering Higher Education?
Am I the last to know? That’s what I’m wondering now. You have no idea what I’m talking about so let’s start at the beginning.
When I started teaching online, I had never taken an online class. After all, I went to school in the prehistoric days, before everyone had a computer. I was on the cutting edge with my IBM 286—my first—as a senior!
My closest association with distance learning was my husband. He completed an entire degree online, and while I never saw the materials he used, I saw him poring over books and working on the computer for hours. Based on this sample of one, I figured online education was similar to “on the ground” education. And even though I’m not a techie, I am quite into tech toys and feel pretty fearless about trying new technologies, I waltzed into the experience with complete confidence!
Then reality hit. I took an online course to learn how to use the learning management system, Blackboard (Bb). I had heard of it, but never seen Bb in operation. Simply finding my way around Bb to take the course was a bit more of a challenge than I anticipated.
Here are some of the questions I had: What is a discussion board? Why are people telling me (and everyone else) their life stories in their introductions? Where is the paper? I was so used to holding paper when I studied that reading everything on a computer screen was very disorienting. I couldn’t underline or write on the screen the way I was used to doing when I studied.
My panic began when my manager started giving me regular reminders that I needed to develop my course—months before I was due to begin teaching. I couldn’t understand why I had to do this so early nor how I would do it. I passed the Bb course but didn’t feel much clearer on what I was doing, because I had no clear picture of how I would teach in this medium. How was I going to lecture? Was there a video camera somewhere? Where was I going to work out problems for the statistics course?
Finally, my manager provided some more direction, but if I understood what was required of me, I didn’t have to do a lecture! I thought that was odd, but I was happy that I was on the road to doing what was asked of me. So I created tests, and discussion questions based on concepts. And with that, I was done…at least with the set-up!
I emphasized my availability to answer questions and explain concepts to students but they didn’t take me up on those offers. So what was I being paid for exactly? Don’t misunderstand; all of the setting-up took lots of time. And I did take time grading the discussion forums and was very conscientious about responding promptly to students' emails. But where was the instruction? So many people are highly phobic about math and all things number-related that I really wanted to be able to show students how easy (and fun!) statistics could be.
When I teach statistics on campus, I demonstrate each new type of problem on the board (sometimes more than once) before having everyone in the class work on similar problems. Students can work on their own or in groups and I walk around to offer direction. This is how most of my students get it. I see them copying the steps from the board and coaching each other along. Regardless of their learning style—most of us are one or a combination of visual, verbal, active, reflective, sensing or intuitive learners—this method of teaching has something for everyone.
Contrast this with my online course and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of learner does well with a textbook, tests, and weekly opportunities to discuss concepts. I still can’t think of any and so I learned how to add lectures and demonstrations to my online courses. This effort was costly, both because I had to buy the necessary techie toys, and because it took hours to learn another technology and then use it.
The big surprise came when students told me that after many years of taking on-line courses, these were their very first lectures! I also heard from colleagues that the on-line courses they are familiar with have no lectures!
Am I the last to find out that I didn’t need to go through all of this to produce lectures? I think I owe my students my expertise as a teacher to help them learn; what responsibilities do schools have for helping their students process information? Why are there tuition costs associated with self-study courses?
This documentary, College Inc., discusses the inability of community colleges to meet the demands of the student market. “For profit” schools have filled this hole, catering to adult learners with online courses, but does educational quality suffer in this format? If so, is that necessarily the case? Do online courses that lack lectures impact the quality of higher education?