Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sullivan on Online Education

I started to add this to the comments on marginalia's post below, but didn't want to hijack.  So, here's my favorite line from Teresa Sullivan's statement to UVA's Board of Visitors:
There is room for carefully implemented online learning in selected fields, but online instruction is no panacea. It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.
I agree completely.  I teach online, and like it, but only because, at least for the moment, I'm free to craft labor-intensive online classes which center around activities that allow students to discover concepts for themselves, practice skills, and interact regularly and intensively with each other and me.  The focus is not information delivery, and there's no mechanized assessment; feedback comes, in words written specifically for the particular student and/or class, from me and/or their peers.  The vast majority of the class materials are created, and all are chosen/curated,  by the instructor of record -- me -- and are updated in some way, from tweaks to wholesale revisions, every time I teach the course, based on what I observed in the last iteration.  The course is an evolving, organic entity, both during the term, and from term to term.  In short, it's an actual course, not a multimedia textbook with a few interactive elements.

Sullivan's statement (and a good compilation of other reactions to the BOV actions) is here . The Washington Post obtained and published an academic strategy memo written by Sullivan (which includes endorsement of online/hybrid education for particular practical/targeted, mostly non-glamorous, purposes) in early May.   Emails exchanged among members of the Board suggest that a sense of urgency about capitalizing on the reputation-building and (supposed) cost-saving potential of online education played a role in the decision to remove Sullivan. Amanda Krauss/Worst Professor (who I sometimes find a bit annoying, but she's in a position to provide an useful perspective here) has a  post up on the possibilities and limitations of MOOCs, and their connection to the UVA debacle.  There's also a very funny parody of the BOV's thinking up on Crooked Timber. 


  1. Cass, as a primarily online instructor as well, I am curious about your comment: "It's a real course not a multimedia textbook with a few interactive elements."

    Have you had experiences like that?
    I have not ... ever.

    I have taught for three separate online programs -- a hybrid private SLAC, a hybrid public SLAC, and a completely online graduate program.

    The private SLAC designed its online courses using the prevalent on-campus model -- instructor is wholly responsible for choosing text, activities, assessments, etc.

    Both the public SLAC and online grad program use centralized curricula where one faculty member designs a master copy of the course which is then delivered by those assigned to teach it.
    Now at the public SLAC, I have designed my own classes so, in that instance, things are that not different than my experience with the private SLAC.

    For the online grad program, however, seeing it from the other side (non-authoring instructor), I do find myself wishing I could adjust this or that aspect of the course.

    That said, in all three programs, none of them have utilized mechanized assessment. ALL of them allow me to hold to my own standards. And, thus far, all have supported me when I have done so.

    1. @A&S: I'm in a program that has used the model where the instructor is entirely responsible for the course, but is taking steps (not drastic ones, at least not as yet) in the direction of having one person author all or part of the course, and others teach it (with some freedom to customize on a day-to-day basis, but only within a tightly prescribed framework that reflects and enforces particular pedagogical assumptions/approaches which differ significantly from my own). So far, we're getting encouragement to pre- and post-test on concepts (which seems a bit odd to me in a skill- rather than content-focused class), but there is no drive to mechanized assessment, nor do I believe there ever will be one (it's an upper-level writing class; nobody's suggesting that the majority of the grade should be based on anything other than student writing, or that that writing can be adequately assessed by a machine).

      The changes we're experiencing are being planned and implemented with all good will, I believe, but almost entirely in response to outside forces -- the desire of a separate online-learning office, which seems to have moved rather quickly from a support to an oversight function, to be able to evaluate and quantify what we're doing for assessment/accreditation purposes (a real issue, I realize, but I'm not sure the solution they've come up with is the only or the best one, just the simplest/most efficient from their perspective). They do *not* arise out of conversations among faculty teaching the online courses in my program about the challenges we've encountered, and/or the solutions we've tried (partly because, as non-TT faculty, we're not eligible to do service). I *do* feel some pressure to produce the equivalent of a multimedia textbook, so outsiders can see "what I'm teaching the students" (as opposed to allowing the students to discover some of the concepts and principles for themselves, which is my strong preference, and appropriate, I think, to a class where we're beginning to try to make students independent and ready for the world beyond school) But no, I'm not feeling pressured to assess via multiple choice or other methods inappropriate to the course. That is more my impression of lower-quality online classes (including those that are created mostly by uploading a publisher course pack of some sort, an approach that our LMS and online office seem to treat as the default option, though, to be fair, I don't have the sense that most instructors are actually doing that. Some may be using textbook chapters and test banks as a foundation while putting their energy into directing more application-focused individual projects, but if somebody's teaching straight from the textbook/course pack/test bank, with little of their own input, I don't know about it. Of course, someone who was doing that probably wouldn't bother to attend the sorts of colloquia that I do, where people are mostly talking about how they figured out how to do something innovative and substantive and very individualized using the tools we have available).

  2. At my CC, there are two people in my department who very strongly advocate the increase of online courses. These two people teach nearly every online course made available to us humanities folks (they have seniority in course selection). They also live an hour away. You can probably fill in the blank about what I think of their motivation.

    Call me paranoid, but I think that unis that push for widespread online instruction do so because they envision farming it out cheaply to faculty they don't have to pay as much or see on a regular basis. Outsourcing, I believe it's called.

    1. @Greta: that's definitely what many admins are hoping for; I'm quite certain of it. That and being able to "leverage" Ph.D. instructors-of-record by having them officially preside over much larger courses while assistants of some kind do much of the actual interaction. This isn't, of course, a new model (think lecture courses and TAs), but putting things online does increase the pool of possible cheap labor (though I'm a bit Hiramed by the idea that Ph.D.-holding instructors of record are actually a scarce or expensive commodity; if my apparent market value is any guide, they're/we're not).

      That said, online classes can work, especially for writing instruction, and I don't see any problem with reducing commutes where possible (perhaps because I live in one of those metropolitan areas where during the ever-expanding morning and evening rush, and randomly throughout the rest of the day, it can sometimes take 30 minutes or more to drive 10 highway miles). But, at least from your descriptions of your students, I don't think online classes would be a good option for most of your students (who I'm taking to be underprepared, often first-generation college students in remedial and intro classes). Even given the course and population I'm teaching (mid-level writing in the disciplines, a mix of traditional and non-traditional, first-generation and later, students), we definitely have people signing up for online classes who shouldn't. It's great if eliminating the commute gives them more time to devote to the class, not so great if, commute or not, they don't have the time (or the environment, or the time-management skills, or the discipline) to get the most, or in some cases much at all, out of the class. Of course, we also have students who sign up for on-campus classes and never or rarely come to those (or do any out-of-class work) either, so it's hardly an online-only problem. Online just has the potential to magnify preexisting issues.


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