The one issue I’ve not taken up yet in this series of posts on the sudden enthusiasm of higher education leaders for online education is the matter of teaching. Before I go any further, I have to offer the following disclaimer. I have not, nor do I intend to teach a purely online course. I have been teaching what are often called “hybrid” courses since the late 1990s, when such things were much more difficult than they are today, so it’s not as if I know nothing about the topic of this post. But it seemed useful to point out that I have never taught a course where the students never meet one another in the analog world.
I say that I will not be teaching such a course for a simple reason. I like meeting my students in the analog world. I’m more than happy to interact with people in the digital world. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 after all. But I just like knowing my students, being in the classroom with them, laughing with them, watching their faces change either with consternation or sudden insight. Were we to interact only online, I would miss all of that and so I choose to not teach that way.
Which is not to say that I think history courses cannot be taught successfully online. Many years ago (January 2001, in fact), I was on a panel at the AHA with my now colleague Paula Petrik and Skip Knox of Boise State University (Stan Katz was the discussant). Skip gave a paper that day about his fully online Western Civilization course and in his presentation said that he felt that the online version of the class was so much more intellectually stimulating than the face to face course. Most of us in the room were, I think, a bit skeptical, until Skip explained all of his reasons for that claim. Since then, I’ve been much more happy to let 1,000 flowers bloom.
However, as Mark Edmundson points out in a recent Op-Ed in the Times, “The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.” Unlike Edmundson, I don’t believe that online teaching has to conform to a one size fits all model. Unless, of course, we are talking about MOOCs or video monologues like those available through shops like the Khan Academy. [For a critique of the Khan project, see this piece in the Washington Post.] These sorts of one-way content flows are not, to my mind, teaching. They are content delivery and so are no more “teaching” than is a movie or a book.
What then should we be doing at this moment when our trustees, presidents, and provosts seem to have drunk the online education Kool-Aid?
Given my earlier comments in this series, I think it’s pretty obvious what I think we should not be doing, and that is jumping on the Coursera/Udacity bandwagon. Until someone can show me real assessment data that indicate that the quality of learning taking place through these platforms is equivalent to what happens in the face to face classroom, I’m going to argue against these sorts of massive courses. They are, until proven otherwise, hype. And, as I argue below, the teaching methodologies they promote are wildly out of sync with the reality of our students’ uses of digital media.
The other thing I think we should not be doing is designing online or hybrid courses around single delivery platforms such as BlackBoard. As someone recently pointed out on Twitter (I’d quote them, but can’t find the citation), teaching students to use products such as BlackBoard is teaching them to use a product, not to think critically. Further, these erroneously named “learning management systems (LMS)” impose an outdated pedagogy on instructors and therefore on students. Worse, they are designed to port onto the Internet existing models of teaching and learning, not to help instructors and students mine the potential of the digital environment for new ways of thinking about the material in their courses.
Many years ago now, Martin Mull (apparently) said that “writing about music [or maybe he said painting] was like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said about trying to force an existing course into a digital realm that is inherently different from the analog one.
Here’s an example of what I mean: One research study after another demonstrates that when young people use digital media, they use it as much to create content as they do to consume content. Far too many teaching models in the analog world are predicated on push methodologies (professors pushing content at students) and, not surprisingly, the online courses that are taking presidential suites by storm are equally predicated on push methods of teaching.
For the current college-age generation, the digital realm is a creative space. Thus, using digital media to push content at students without giving them the opportunity to create is like dancing about architecture.
Instead of rushing lemming-like toward push platforms like Coursera or the Khan Academy, we should be thinking carefully about how teaching and learning in the digital realm is different. Then, and only then, should we start creating new approaches to teaching and learning. BlackBoard and its ilk won’t help us. MOOCs won’t help us either.
Who then will help us? Our students, that’s who. By involving them in the process of creating something entirely new, something that maximizes the potentialities of digital media as lived by our students (as opposed to cadres of corporate coders), we will have a chance to get it right this time.