Open Education Open Education

In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?

There are certainly two camps when it comes to the notion of open courseware and its ability to educate tomorrow’s students. Some, like Mark Pesce, see the concept as breaking down the ivy-covered walls in both the literal and figurative sense. For them, open courseware would eliminate current admission barriers, allowing the common man with access to a computer and an Internet connection a world class education.

Others see the notion quite differently. They note that an exceptionally high college dropout rate is even higher in online programs. They further insist that online education, considered by most to be the tool to a more cost-effective course delivery system, actually is more expensive currently as schools cover the cost of specific software (that does not come cheap) on top of having to pay someone to hover over the students enrolled.

Two Schools of Thought

Steve Kolowic recently took a look at the current state of the open courseware movement at Inside Higher Education. In discussing the likes of the so-called elite institutions (Columbia, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Kolowic indicates that these schools have defined their value “by exclusivity as much as by excellence” and that “the classrooms and curriculums that ostensibly transform talented high-schoolers into cardholding members of the adult elite have been walled off from the general public.”

But elsewhere on the University front, Kolowic writes that online education has been “all but cleansed of its original stigma” and thus become commonplace.

“The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs,” explains Kolowic. “The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.”

In contrast, those considered the elite of higher education have not offered online pathways for a degree. Instead, they are giving away certain courses for free.

“The elites took the road less traveled,” writes Kolowic, and instead published “the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.”

All of these thoughts are presented as a lead in to an interview with Taylor Walsh, the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access. In the interview with Taylor, one clear thought comes through. The elite schools know they need to have a presence on the web in a market that is clearly growing in possibilities. A presence of some sort appears essential to further the global brand of these schools at a time when competition is keen.

The Real Challenge

Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, is a veteran when it comes to teaching courses online. Writing about the release of Walsh’s book and the future of the open courseware movement, Stross yanks more than a few chains with his opening assertion.

“When colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.”

But his chain doesn’t seem to come with a noose. Despite the prediction of the end of the teaching profession as we know it, Stross goes on to calmly insist he is not worried.

“Amid acute budget crises, state universities like mine can’t afford to take that very big step — adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.”

Indeed, Stross does a great job of articulating one critical fundamental. While he is a veteran online educator, he insists the descriptor currently being used is misleading.

Stross teaches what educators now refer to as a hybrid course. It does feature some elements that make use of software. But it also features a full-fledged teacher, a “hovering human” as Stross describes.

To one day replace teachers, an online course would have to remove the need for the hovering human. It would be 100% software based and would handle all tasks that the aforementioned human (including assessing students and providing relevant feedback on their performance) previously handled.

Of the open courseware movement, Stross notes the costs involved.

“Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too.”

Those costs have Stross confident that his job is safe, especially given the current shortfall of funds most institutions currently face.

Above and Beyond the Monetary Factor

I would contend that Stross might be safe for yet another reason if I can at least assume he is typical of the vast majority of teachers and professors. While it is easy to imagine the use of technology and open courseware resources to both supplement and even replace textbooks and the like, it cannot replace the figure orchestrating the learning process provided that person does in fact do more than simply hover.

It is in this realm that we turn to Wendy Brown, the Emanuel Heller Professor Political Science at UC Berkeley. Professor Brown unloaded last October when discussing the approval of the California Regents to test the viability of offering a bachelor’s degree program 100% online.

Speaking at the Graduate Student Association Forum on the Cyber Campus, Brown delivered a scathing rebuke of the suggestion. When she was done, Professor Brown was on another planet from the likes of the forward-thinking Mark Pesce or the pragmatic Stross.

“I have many thoughts about the differences between the virtual and live classroom,” states Brown. “Differences between, on the one hand, classes featuring professors with an avowed point of view, modestly attuned to the abilities of their students, working closely with their GSIs, and, on the other, authorless curriculums with instructors of record and hundreds of low-paid teaching assistants.

“Differences between, on the one hand, students in a hushed auditorium, shorn of electronic connections and other distractions, listening to a line of Shakespeare, a measure of Chopin, a principle of physics–taking them apart together to discover the kernel of their brilliance–and, on the other, a student staring at the line, the measure, the principle on a MacBook, perhaps at a Starbucks with email and Facebook portals open, perhaps at home flanked by children whining, bosses calling, friends texting.”

Brown questions the financial implications before revealing some of the less than flattering data emerging regarding online instruction. “The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs.”

But for Brown, the real key is the inherent human element, the notion that education is fundamentally a people-business. Quality courses feature a skilled and passionate educator inspiring his or her students, poking and prodding so as to unleash the potential of those he or she is tasked with teaching. This human touch simply cannot be produced in a class delivered at a distance entirely over the net.

“What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited? Where there are moments of epiphany during or after a lecture, where one is transformed by thinking with or against one’s teacher or peers about a text, event or problem? Where a single question from a student or response from a professor can clarify the presuppositions of a complex notion or crystallize the dark, shocking or exciting implications of a proposition or value?”

Brown moves beyond the rhetorical to provide two very interesting, concrete examples. She first notes that “while on-line law schools exist, none are accredited by the American Bar Association, and 49 states refuse to permit students graduating from the on-line schools to sit for the bar.”

If that were not a significant red flag as to how online education is viewed, she then furthered her point by explaining a recent development from her own life.

“Last winter, alas, I collected a speeding ticket in the Sierra foothills. Although eligible for traffic school to clear the ticket, I was surprised to discover that Calavaras County did not allow use of the ubiquitous on-line traffic schools. Curious, I phoned the traffic court clerk to ask why: “is it just because I could pay my teenage son to take it for me?” No, she replied, “it’s because studies show that people don’t change their driving after taking the on-line courses but do with the in-person ones.”

To complete her rebuke, Brown summarizes thus:

If, “from traffic schools to law schools,” fully on-line education has been deemed inadequate to the task of educating and changing the student, what does it mean to unleash it in the most transformative period in the life of young adults, the early years of college?

Delivering Open Courseware

Truth be told, the two views are entirely valid. Open courseware has the power to transform the national curriculum, increasing rigor and creating up-to-date, content-rich courses where lectures are delivered by the best the profession has to offer. It should also eliminate the need for those impersonal, 500 seat lecture halls. In this way, the materials offered students could nearly match those currently offered at the so-called elite institutions.

But there will always be a need for that facilitator, the person with the ability to poke and prod, to provide the timely pats on the back and the occasional kick in the seat of the pants. It is for this reason that public school teachers are talking about the transformation from “being sages on the stage” to “guides on the side.”

Open courseware should provide the sage – but the learning process will still need that orchestrator. My guess is that the elite colleges came to this realization a long time ago.

So those course materials are indeed available in an effort to further that brand recognition. But those schools are banking on that critical fundamental tenet, that education is first and foremost a people-business.


1 Joseph Thibault { 02.11.11 at 1:32 pm }

Great post that really sizes up the debate right now. We offer courses online which have no instructors or hovering humans, but students are getting college credit for them upon successful completion. We hear these arguments often…what’s certain is that students are eager for lower cost options. This is a major driving factor for both online and open courseware (and will continue to be so). Figuring out the right mix/ingredients to online to negate those factors (higher drop rates, outcomes, etc.) is where the focus should be.

2 Maryanne Burgos { 02.14.11 at 7:56 am }

I don’t think there has been enough research yet regarding the efficacy of an online education. Until multiple studies have been done comparing the “graduate school readiness” of undergraduates who have studied totally online and been granted degrees or the “job readiness” of graduate students who have studied totally online with those who have studied in a traditional setting and been granted degrees, we won’t have an true picture of how well open source learning works.

3 Justin { 03.21.11 at 12:58 am }

Thank you for focusing on this subject.

There are certainly arguments against, but even the need for a guide from the side will diminish as even existing technology is adequately harnessed. Tie a Microsoft Kinnect into the mix, or perhaps some future near equivalent variation, and software to be driven by it, and issues of attentiveness, active participation, and others will diminish the aforementioned need drastically.

As to the drop out rate, some allowance has to be given simply because like anything else, easy come easy go. Online courses demand by their very nature a lower commitment, and so the consequence should be obvious. But more importantly, does the drop out rate have any significant relevance in an online context? The economics of an emptied virtual seat is vastly different than the economics of an emptied physical seat.

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