I’ve spent the last two days taking online courses required by the government if we are to continue working in our field. One has to do with how to use a government website with dozens of screens and functions. That online class was a mind-numbing walk through each of the screens describing every detail and every regulation regarding what I can and can’t do on each screen. It was followed by an equally mind-numbing exam that asked pertinent questions like, How many sections are there on Screen A? and Which of the following items cannot be done on Screen B? (so that None of the Above becomes a confusing double negative). It took me two tries to pass the exam. The second course used games like Jeopardy and Millionaire to make the learning more interesting but ended up seeming patronizing. I passed the second course in one try, so patronizing must be better than mind-numbing.
The last time I took a college course, it was part of a Creative Writing Certificate program at Cal State Fullerton. There were real live instructors in front of the class and the students critiqued each other’s work. I can’t imagine how an online course could emulate the experience. Before that, I took a marketing course at (gasp) UCLA. The best part of the course was the experience of the professors and participating in a real focus group with motorcycle riders as the subjects. My graduate work in engineering at USC (Fight On !!!) was available over closed circuit TV but I chose to drive through the LA traffic to the campus to interact with the professors and other students. This in spite of the fact that the courses were math and engineering classes that would seem perfectly suited to interactive television. Are you starting to get the picture? No offense to online universities like Ashford University and Walden University, but I can’t imagine getting the education I got in-person in an online curriculum.
I know, I know. Online education is the wave of the future and one old curmudgeon isn’t going to slow it down. Isn’t putting iPads in the hands of our kids part of the master plan for improving our education system? Don’t online curricula, as Colorado State University Online puts it, remove the traditional boundaries of time and location to offer you the flexibility not often found in other academic situations. You are not required to be in a physical classroom and can set your own pace and choose the most convenient time and place to study. Me? I’d have never made it through The Mathematical Theory of Statistics without a set schedule and a live professor to hold my attention (even if he did it by asking questions of those who seemed to be daydreaming). And I was a very good student, at least once I’d reached my graduate courses. Undergraduate, not so much.
It’s not surprising that it’s easy to find effusive articles on Interactive Education Online (ILO) on the internet. It is, after all, a medium that loves itself. And many of the articles are by organizations offering ILO so they tend to be biased. But an essay by Jason Gary on Reforming Our Universities title Does Online Education Actually Work? caught my eye for several reasons. First, I liked Jason’s somewhat skeptical approach to the issue. I tend to be skeptical of “great new innovations” in education is that they are rarely rigorously tested, he said. On the college level, I’ve seen the “audio-visual age” come and go, followed by the “computer-assisted instruction age.” And over the decades I’ve dealt with the results of educational “reforms” such as the New Math, the New New Math, Bilingual Education, and the “whole word” approach to reading in my own classes. His essay discussed a particular course offered at a major university in both ILO and classroom-based learning (CBL) that showed that students learned equally well from both ILO and CBL. His concerns regarding the study, beyond its limited scope, are the same as mine. He noted that because the students in chose ILO over CBL, they may have been highly motivated … and because they were at a major university, the academic caliber of the students may not reflect that of the student population over all (e.g. – community college students).
Personally, I believe a gifted, motivated student can learn anywhere. But I wonder if online courses can be designed to work across the range of students that take them. And I worry about unscrupulous students exploiting the system. Cheating seems more acceptable to students these days and unmotivated but computer-savvy students will find it easier to do online. And, at the end of the day, I learned as much or more from my interpersonal experiences in school as I did from the textbooks.
What do you think?