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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Whose Online? What Online?

I was only able to listen to a portion of the Regent's session on Online Education (I caught the last 45 minutes of the UCOP discussion and the presentation by the MOOC providers).  But even in that period two extremely important points were made although it is unclear that the Regents or UCOP really understood their importance.  But faculty must.

The first was made by Jonathan Stein (the "student" regent).  Stein pointed out quite forcefully that in his dealing with students he found no groundswell of support for online education--despite the shibboleth that since young people today are raised on technology they must prefer digital approaches.  As Stein stressed, most UC students are paying a great deal of money, expect and want a residential environment and the possibility of real rather than virtual contact with peers and professors.  Given the National Bureau of Economic Research's recent study on the importance of real versus virtual friends for one's happiness this is no great surprise for those who take the time to think about it.  But we might want to listen to digital natives like Stein; they may understand the limits of these platforms better than UCOE does.

The power of this point was brought home by the panic stricken responses of President Yudof and Regent Lansing that no one,  really no one, not a soul, was even contemplating moving all of UC online or requiring students to take courses online.  But we should press them on this point.  If UCOP and the Regents end up trying to use the expansion of online courses--rather than say the increase in the number of faculty--as a way to overcome so-called "bottleneck" courses, and if they use online courses as the primary means to allow community college students to meet their lower-division requirements then, as a practical matter, students will be compelled to take online courses even if they are not officially required.  Faculty need to take Stein's argument seriously: but in order to do so we need to re-articulate the ecology of the residential campus and the connections between different parts of students' experiences.  It is not seeking to block innovation to recognize that there is a fundamental value to many students (especially younger students) to the residential experience and the face to face interaction with teachers and peers.  

The second point--in some ways even more far-reaching--was made by Sebastian Thrun founder of Udacity.  As Thrun insisted, online courses will not offer educational advantages if they simply try to transfer the classroom experience into a digital form.  Putting faculty in front of cameras and simply recording their lectures will only dehumanize the process of learning and serve to debase the practice of teaching.  Online will be an advantage only when it can be put together to do exercises that cannot easily be done in a classroom (and not simply in the sense that you can get more people to see a lecture) and when those exercises can be combined with a renewed attention to person to person pedagogical contact.

To be sure, Thrun's comments were directed, at least in part, towards justifying why campuses needed to hand control over course construction to his course designers.   But that is not its only significance.  Instead its greater significance lies in the reality that if online offerings are going to be used to enrich the possibilities offered in California higher ed they must be designed in ways that enrich the goals of different academic programs by either offering a different set of challenges for students or else by supplementing the face-to-face teaching already being done (the purpose of the so-called flipped course).  The first question that needs to be asked of any online endeavor is what educational value does this enable me to do that I cannot do in a more traditional format.

I wish that there was evidence that the Regents understood this point.  But judging by the close there was none.  Regent Pattiz continues to think of online as if higher ed is the music business where you purchase a download of a discrete chunk of content rather than--as Thrun and others tried to convey--an ongoing process of directed learning.  Regent Reiss, not showing the sort of attentive learning one might wish, trotted out the tired cliche about the end of the "sage on a stage" not realizing that the implications of the presentations by EDx, Coursera, and Udacity was that the teacher as director (and not as "guide on the side") becomes even more important in these models.

If the capacity of digital tools is that it may enable more possibilities for learning through questions and problems it is worth remembering that that model goes back even further than the much abused modern lecture in a classroom and that it was tied to a sage.  Because what Thrun was talking about was the reinvention of Socratic dialogue and not the download of an mp3 file.  It has been the austerity policies of the last twelve years--not the invention of new technologies or the alleged conservatism of the faculty--that has driven the dialogue and the seminar to the margins of the university.  If we are serious about the quality of education then returning the dialogue and the seminar to the center is the task facing education going forward--whether digital or not,


Fred Beshears said...

The university should consider replacing large lecture classes by importing MOOCs the way it now thinks of imports textbooks.

It should also consider replacing the large lecture hall with small group learning environments. This idea has been around for forty years; it's call Tutored Video Instruction.

If you're interested in these two ideas, here's a link:


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