Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Trouble with College, Online or Off

English: This is Juniper Hall at Humboldt Stat...
There is an editorial in the New York Times entitled "The Trouble with Online College" this morning about online education. It argues that online education has high attrition rates and that students who are unprepared for college will not do very well. The "therefore" is that we should think twice before seeking to attempt the MOOC model (Massive Open Online Courses). The article makes no distinction between "traditional" online classes or MOOCs. It makes no distinction between the different kinds of learning platforms and designs that are going under the name of MOOC. None of this confusion of terms really helps the opinion. All of the research cited in the piece is from Washington State's tracking students in their online classes, not from any research related to MOOCs. With that in mind, I think it is important to look at the success and retention rates of any online class, even MOOCs, and look at what makes for a successful online class.

To begin with, I generally agree with this article but disagree with the take-away. There are problems with online classes but they have the same issues as face-to-face. I recently worked at a college that had a graduation rate of less than 13%, a retention rate of 52%, and a transfer rate of only 15% with tuition at $5600. Not high by national standards but a considerable amount of money to the local population, especially considering the price of textbooks. If a student's classes are not using free, openly licensed textbooks, they can expect to add another $900-$1200 a year to that price tag. No one sounded any alarms; no one suggested that the model is suspect or broken. No one has warned that face-to-face learning may not be cost effective or sustainable. No one has suggested that teachers need special training or that the orientation to college needs to be redesigned - none of that is really possible is it because the face-to-face, brick and mortar model is the best possible systems of education. I would like to see the editorial pages of the New York Times or the Chronicle of Higher Ed hold face-to-face colleges up to the same standards as they do online colleges. But the interesting thing is that online colleges can meet that challenge.

There is a large body of research in online learning that shows that there is no significant difference between face-to-face and online learning that has been going on for decades and is routinely ignored by many educators and columnists. Despite the findings of that research, in the distance education department at the previous college where I worked, we saw in increasing difference between the success and retention rates of our online college versus our face-to-face college. We did some research and decided to do three things to close the gap:
  1. Student Orientation
    We designed a free, fully online student orientation that used all the tools that the school's learning management system used. It operated like a "real" online class over two weeks. It included not only the technology the students were going to use but the learning skills needed to succeed online (time management, communication, etc.).
  2. Faculty Training
    We increased our faculty training efforts. We kept a weekly schedule of workshops that were either presented in-house or we participated in free online workshops from other colleges. Our dream was to create a network of colleges that were already presenting online workshops to their faculty and keep them all in a central calendar.
  3. Online Student Advising
    We had a dedicated academic advisor who was completely focused on online students. This advisor was very good at his job. He made himself available to be enrolled in any online class and could do things like subscribe to the help forums in classes and call students on the phone who had not logged-in in two weeks.
The results were that we closed the gap between the success and retention rates in the online college first meeting the California community college average and then beating that and passing the national average. I wrote about that here and also presented on it at conferences.

I have also taught developmental English in a hybrid online course and have seen full-online developmental English courses beat the retention and success rates of face-to-face classes. This can happen with good instructional design that incorporates the skills that students need to be successful online and the connections to the same services that all students need to succeed (online librarians, advisors, etc.). 

One of the reasons why online teaching and learning has problems is because college's and instructors continue to believe that the same model that "works" in the face-to-face classroom is the same model needed for the online classroom. We need a different model and a different system of support. Colleges are not getting the same students they did 20 years ago. Students need to learn how to learn online. They have spent 12 years in the face-to-face classroom learning how to be face-to-face students (in the best of all possible worlds), and we can't just assume they will have the skills needed to be successful online - we need to teach them.
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