Online instruction, stubborn resistance, and stupid faculty

A two-part tale of higher education and online instruction…

“Students demand free beer too”

A May 29 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reads as follows:

Opponents of online instruction believe that traditional, face-to-face teaching is always better. A colleague of mine, wary of caving in to students’ demands for online courses, remarked recently that “students demand free beer, too; that doesn’t mean we should give it to them.”

What her academic colleague somehow, incredibly, fails to realize, of course, is that students don’t have to attend his institution. Since postsecondary students vote with their feet and their pocketbooks, the institution does indeed have to give students online courses if that’s what they want. Otherwise, the university literally won’t have any tuition revenue because its potential students went elsewhere instead.

I can’t wait to see what happens over the next couple of decades. As online courses become even more prevalent than they are now, colleges and universities either will have to get in the game or be left behind. There are too many options available to students for anything else to occur. Some postsecondary institutions are going to realize that they must become more responsive to student needs and desires in order to survive; others won’t realize it until it’s too late and will disappear altogether. It should make for interesting times.

In the meantime, all I can say is… stupid faculty.

“I’ll never do it again”

Another article in the same issue of The Chronicle describes one faculty member’s woeful experience teaching online. The author goes into detail regarding all of the problems that she had with the course, including (but not limited to):

  1. there was a ‘lack of immediacy’ in communication;
  2. she was ‘only able to introduce students to a limited amount of material outside of the textbook readings;’
  3. it is ‘simply impossible to replicate a lecture online;’
  4. there wasn’t ‘enough time or a proper forum’ to help students ‘develop writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas;’
  5. online courses are too big;
  6. she had no time off during the week like she would with a regular 3–hour, once-a-week, face-to-face class;
  7. she got too many e-mail messages from students; and
  8. she suspected her students didn’t like her very much.

This faculty member obviously has no idea that 1, 3, and 5 are dependent on how the course and the technology were structured. Setting up the course in a different way might have alleviated many of her concerns. Issues 2 and 6 seem to be the result of her own decision-making, not any inherent flaw in online instruction. Issue 4 doesn’t make any sense to me; didn’t she have the same number of weeks as for her other courses? It’s hard for me to be sympathetic regarding Issue 7: My students contacted me too much and asked me too many questions! Waaahh! I guess she prefers it when her students stay out of touch and don’t try to get their questions answered. Finally, can she really blame Issue 8 on the fact that the instruction was ‘online?’ There sure are a lot of faculty who teach online and also have students who like them.

Again, my main thought on this is… stupid faculty.

Wrap-up

Whether we want it to or not, the paradigm shift is occurring around us every day. As postsecondary faculty members, it behooves us to learn about it and adjust rather than dismissively rejecting the new learning landscape and stubbornly trying to stick to the status quo.

[Okay, calling these faculty members stupid probably is a little harsh. But I think clueless fits quite nicely…]

20 Responses to “Online instruction, stubborn resistance, and stupid faculty”

  1. There’s another side to this, too, which is that secondary school education is going to start moving online, too. And then pre-secondary education will, as well — to provide content to the homeschooling and unschooling movement, and to try to win students back from those movements to the public school systems from the charter school organizations. And this will start happening over the next decade — and then it will be here, and too late. The “good enough phenomenon” will drain students from public school quite suddenly.

    But it will start draining kids from the private schools much earlier, especially in a prolonged economic crisis. Families that are used to the idea of spending $40,000 a year for secondary-level boarding school will look into $10,000 a year private day schools; day school parents paying $10,000 will turn to public schools. And some day school parents will look at parochial schools, and some won’t; some will look at unschooling and homeschooling as well.

    Oh, look… some private schools, even here in the Northeast U.S. are starting to close.

  2. Alright, going to have to defend “traditional” instruction a little. Not going to like it, but I think you go too far.

    First, my experience … generalized.

    (1) Lecture is better online for me, and probably, generally. The ability to pause, repeat, take notes at your own pace … is simply an advantage that face-to-face lectures cannot match. A simple program like Camtasia meshed with powerpoint and a webcam does a knock out job – and my students seem to love the flexibility it offers.

    (2) On the other hand, discussion is better in person for me, and probably at this point in technology development, generally. Facial expressions, eye contact, body movements are very much part of a conversation. In very small groups, technology has come close with Skype and elluminate, etc. But at 10+ students, technology cannot keep up (and that’s assuming everyone has fast enough connections to do streaming video). In a room of 15-20 students, I can keep track of them all and keep them all engaged simultaneously. Can’t do that with online instruction yet (if I am missing some awesome program or software – let me know).

    3) Assignments are mixed. Closed response items work fine and the fact that blackboard does the grading for me is a bonus. Open response is a toss up. The real struggle I have is closed book tests online. I can’t assure they are not using outside sources. Anyway, mixed. Some good, some bad.

    So, my solution has been hybrid courses. I am at about 60-40 online right now but unless technology improves a whole bunch, I don’t see myself going much past that in the near term.

    Your criticisms are right on and while I think technology is not there yet as a full substitute for face-to-face, it is clearly capable of substituting for a lot of it. A paradigm shift is occurring, but those shifts are not overnight. I don’t think we should be such advocates that we close our eyes to the truth, and, in my opinion, the simple truth is that online instruction is not a full replacement for face-to-face right now.

    The problem is that there is too much either/or thinking and not enough both kind of thinking. Both is a really good answer right now in my opinion. But, to get to both, both sides of this argument need to work together. Stubbornness and entrenchment are not productive in an environment where uncertainty reigns. I just don’t think you can fault the Chronicle or higher ed faculty that much yet. We are only 10 years functional and only really 5 years feasible … its still early.

  3. I don’t think “stupid” is too harsh…… but if you want, you could go with “foolish” or “clueless”….. :)

  4. As someone who will start teaching two sections of writing online Monday, this post sucked me right in. Thank you for sharing the articles and your commentary.

    I was particularly intrigued and disturbed by the woman with the 8 complaints. I wonder what kind of expectations she had before she began teaching online. Did she, like many students, believe it would be easier than a f2f class? I also wonder what kind of training she was provided before the began teaching online. While online teaching and learning might not be for everyone, I’m saddened to see it dismissed so quickly.

    Complaint #2 bothered me quite a bit. When one teaches online or even considers using the technology available to them, you and I both know that the possibilities are endless.

    Living here in the state of Iowa and teaching at a community college, I am pleased to see that online learning is an option for my students who are busy with everything that complicates their lives. And I, for one, will be happily spending my summer in front of the computer not trying to get my students to like me but rather trying to get them to see an online version of me and my classes that is just as effective as (or even better than) the f2f version.

  5. Having taken several online courses, as well as traditional courses, I was amazed by most of the reasons given by “I’ll Never Do It Again”. It sounds like the underlying problem is with her attitude towards the technology. As in all things (and even more so in things technological), it is about the attitude you approach it with. If you are sure you aren’t going to like something, you aren’t going to. I saw a lot of “stupid faculty” like her when I was in college but, thankfully, I also saw professors who were the exact opposite.

    As a non-traditional student, initially I took online courses because I couldn’t always be on campus. Later I took them because I chose to. They gave me time to think about my responses and the opportunity to interact with people I never would have otherwise — people from all over the world were able to participate and were able to contribute unique perspectives I would not have heard otherwise at a university in Iowa where diversity is limited.

    What determines how good online courses are depends largely on the professor and their attitude towards the medium. The best online courses were when the professor used the medium to the maximum extent possible and managed to do everything this professor says can’t be done.

    Hopefully she (and others like her) will get a clue and realize what most students already know: face-to-face teaching is NOT always better. Some of my face-to-face courses were a total waste of time and some were amazing. With my online courses, some were amazing and others weren’t. But none were a waste of time because at a minimum lectures were prepared professionally and time was not wasted getting to the subject matter.

  6. Let’s also not forget the P&T implications of teaching online. In a face-to-face class the students, largely because they are handed a paper form and given 10-15 minutes to fill out student evaluations (and since all of their colleagues are doing it, they follow the lead and you get a response rate of 80%+). In an online class, a link is simply sent to the student via e-mail and they can choose to ignore it as easily as they ignore any unwanted e-mail. This tends to lead to a much lower response rate in online evaluations, and also often leads to the ratemyprofessor.com-style evaluations (i.e., a bunch of people who have an axe to grind filling them out and then a smaller number of students who think you’re the best thing since sliced bread, but rarely after from the he did a suitably expected job and I’ll give him a 4 out of 5 crowd).

    As student evaluations are often the main aspect that universities have for judging the teaching aspect of your P&T, these low response and high standard deviation scores can serve to hurt many junior faculty. And it is often the junior faculty who are most interested in teaching online, as in many cases they have the most recent technical skill set.

  7. I think the only thing you needed to say in addition to “This faculty member obviously has no idea” is “and hopefully there will be a retirement in the near future.”

    Just because we have always taught students the way we want to doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught the way they will learn best.

    Here’s more thoughts (no, not in a lecture mode) http://www.youtube.com/v/BqkW6eZLMj8 (it’s about connecting with students).

  8. Nice critique, Scott, of the online instructor’s complaints.

    I agree with you that the problem is NOT online teaching, but rather, as you indicate, it sounds like there was a lack of attention to appropriate online course design (i.e. if it’s going to be effective, it’s going to take more than simply posting lectures and readings “online”) and lack of training to teach online (i.e. if online instructors are going to be effective, they need to be prepared with appropriate strategies and techniques for the different pace, structure and opportunities of the online classroom).

    The faculty member probably is not “stupid” but certainly is frustrated, like many others, who were perhaps thrown into an online teaching situation without training to design or teach in that environment. This has to stop, too!

    Not only do students want this option, but as I am sure you all know, research is beginning to show that when designed and facilitated appropriately, online courses can be more effective in supporting student learning, fostering stronger instructor/student and student/student connections, enabling deeper reflective learning and more.

    Barbara Treacy

  9. Agreed on many points here, Scott. As someone who recently graduated from a hybrid (~90% online, 10% f2f) graduate program, from the institution you currently work for, I can attest that online learning “can work.” I took several electives online during my undergraduate years and my experience was mediocre at best. My perspective is that online learning, just like traditional f2f learning, varies widely depending on the instructor and institution. So many citizens have a poor taste in their mouths when it comes to “school” just like those who have had bad online learning experiences and spread the negative to anyone that will listen. Online learning is here to stay. Let’s look for ways we can improve it in as many places as possible, just as we’re putting energy into our traditional school settings.

  10. Scott–As I read your post I kept wondering what and how much Faculty Development this instructor had on teaching an online course. Online courses are taught in a very different teaching environment than face-to-face courses with many variables being changed or there being many new variables to deal with.

    Do colleges and universities provide ample training on how to teach in an online environment or is it just a “trial and error” approach for professors?

    As more schools move to and provide online courses, there will need to be a solid investment in training for these professors.

    Thanks for your post.

  11. Online courses can, of course, be very effective. But let’s not pretend that they are an improvement in every way, particularly in the way I suspect they will be implemented in public schools. My own, slightly less optimistic, view of the future is second-class online ‘learning’ for the majority and traditional ‘teaching’ (supplemented with online resources, of course) for the elite who can afford it. The wealthy will always have their small classes and private tutors and people paid to be dedicated to assisting THEIR child, not hundreds of children in a ‘virtual environment’.

    Having said that, it is also true that training is required if online classes are t be as effective as they can be and, as much as anything, it’s still going to take time for people to get their heads around these changes. We probably don’t encourage people to open their minds by calling them stupid or sneering at their supposed ‘cluelessness’, I’d suggest. It might be better to accept that there ARE genuine reasons to doubt that online classes offer everything that face-to-face learning does and that these doubts need to be addressed or accepted as actualities.

  12. I’m in a K-12 environment, and once sat around with ten grade 6-8 teachers and asked them if they had taken any online courses before this day… they were with me on how to use Moodle to augment their in-classroom experience. I had a tough audience. Not one of them had a good online learning experience, and all but one had taken an online course.

    Having one degree myself earned through online instruction via Blackboard, I had mixed experiences myself. I thought the comments by this professor were telling. I’ve been at this technology + teaching thing now for 10 years, and each year I get better and better, and the technology is changing fast too. I almost think professors (or any instructor in general) has got to expect some growing pains and mistakes starting out. The comment about face to face being better than online is a classic example. I hope face to face never goes away, I think it’s valuable too. But starting out of the gate with the chip on the instructor’s shoulder that one medium for instruction is clearly flawed isn’t going to make the best of the experience. I think multimedia lectures can be a part of the experience, but so can so many different kinds of virtual experiences.

    Just as I have to support teachers in grades 3-12 with enhancing their real world classroom experiences with some of the benefits of an online environment (Moodle), my own experience tells me that higher ed. instruction needs far more of that support, too. There are successful examples out there and designing good instruction–no matter the medium–always presents challenges. In this case, they’re different ones.

  13. Nice post, Scott. I too blogged about the same Chronicle article (http://tinyurl.com/l6s3dd) but I also commented in the Chronicle Forum about it. So far, that comment has been viewed 875 times and has led to a series of responses, many of which are no where as agreeing as your crowd here – http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php?topic=60723.0

  14. @Andrew Watt: Yes, secondary schools will increasingly feel the same pressures from students and families for more online options. As you note, some of them already are…

    @Justin B:

    1. I’m a big fan of hybrid courses. I like to see my students now and then. They like to see each other too. They also like the convenience of the online aspects. The hybrid model seems to work pretty well to accommodate all of these desires. That said, I’ve taught wholly online many times and it’s worked well too.

    2. Other than self-check types of items, I would hope that the number of fixed-response assessment items is kept to an minimum in any class involving adult learners (and non-adult learners for that matter!).

    3. I’ve actually found that my class discussions are deeper and richer online than face-to-face. I hear more, and more often, from my students online than I do within the weekly 3-hour time block we typically have for a F2F class. And their responses are more thoughtful too since they don’t have to rush to get out a response before the class time ‘ends.’

    4. You say that ‘online instruction is not a full replacement for face-to-face right now.’ Many of us might disagree with you. Again, some of it depends on how you structure the course. If you want that “see and hear each other live” aspect, build in some synchronous webcam components (and still save yourselves the driving and parking hassles).

    @Michael: Sure, you can always get 100% F2F simply because you have a captive audience there in the room, but I would argue that lower student response on online course evaluations has more to do with other factors than simply whether they’re online or F2F.

    @Carter Smith: Thanks for sharing the video!

    @Britt Watwood: Thanks to you too. I’ll go check out the conversation at The Chronicle.

    @Barbara Treacy: I’m going to stick with stupid (or at least clueless). Faculty members are supposed to be ‘smart’ people. If they’re not reflective or thoughtful enough to recognize that there’s a difference between course design, instructor decisions, and naturally-inherent limitations of the technology, they shouldn’t be teaching other adults. Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. Students are paying us thousands of dollars to teach. We should be doing it well. There’s no reason that the second instructor shouldn’t realize that most of her complaints had to do with her personally and/or her instructional decision-making and/or the way the course was structured. There’s a difference between saying “I need to learn to do this better” and “the technology is evil so no thanks.”

    @Sean Sharp: Despite my sharp rhetoric, I actually feel some empathy for the second instructor in this post because the vast majority of universities are doing a TERRIBLE job of training their instructors how to teach well online. Most of us (myself included) have to learn through trial and error and/or searching out resources to improve our online instruction.

    @M Chips: I agree with you that online instruction often does have disadvantages that F2F instruction doesn’t. But vice versa as well. As you said, different modalities for different tasks. However, I’m also finding that many of those modality differences are disappearing as our digital technologies improve. As to the rest of your comment, I’m going to stick with my response to Barbara Treacy above. We faculty should be looking inward at our own instructional practices, not blaming the space within which we teach (for example, we’d never allow a faculty member to blame physical room limitations for poor teaching evaluations).

    @John Hendron, Matt, Michelle, and everyone else: Agreed. There’s good and bad instruction going on in both environments. I think we should work on deconstructing and improving that problem, which will require a much more thoughtful approach than either of these faculty members seems willing to engage. Thus my post.

    Thanks for all of the great comments so far!

  15. Thanks for the well thought out responses. These posts, especially related to ed. leadership, are outstanding. Keep them coming … you are causing me to think … a lot!

  16. As both an online learner and one who has close personal contact with an online instructor who works with three different Universities, I have two observations:

    1. Often the institution defines the online curriculum structure leaving little or no room for the instructor to be innovative or flexible.

    2. PD for online instructors really needs to grasp why people take online courses and then design the course to fit those needs. My daughter is currently in an online College class that acts as if it is a f2f class. She chose the online class because between her full time job, her other f2f classes and health problems she needed something a little more flexible. The class however requires almost daily submissions, a feat which is impossible for her and there was no flexibility.

    So I guess my point is that I think online classes need a different pedagogy and the change has to be brought about within University policy as well as with good professional development for the instructors.

  17. @Scott: Just to piggy-back on a few of the commenters here, I think one of the biggest problems many online instructors face is trying to replicate what they do in f-2-f classes in the online world. Many faculty simply drop in all their f-2-f documents, presentations, etc. and think that will suffice. Many do not know how to use communication tools for chat, messaging, video conf, etc. and they don’t realize how vital these tools are to successful online courses.

  18. I have run ito the problem with change in my school as well. When we become stagnat we loose our students just as you said. I hope that the older teachers who hate technology step it up or retire. education is ever changing and we need to move with it!

  19. @Scott: Most college professors have never been trained in how to TEACH period, much less how to do so in an online environment. I’m teaching both online and hybrid courses at community college, and it has been trial and error. Thankfully, it’s been the input and help from my students that has helped me the most along the way. The oxymoron “higher education” has a long way to go in many ways to catch up with PK-12.

  20. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/06/textbook-rant.html

    Pretty quick, you will need to have an online component in all of your classes. I think that books are going away in the next curriculum purchase cycle here. (I work in a k-12 district.) Don’t be surprised if they go at your school district too.

    Seth’s text book rant makes the point on why they should go. They are out-of-date quickly and add little value as a reference later. I had the experience of selling books back to the store for 10 cents on the dollar after using them for 10 weeks 25 years ago.

    I also believe that where people actually work is going to become more flexible. What is to stop a parent who wants to take a kid with while they telecommute from Mexico for a month? Online will be a service that parents will be looking for in a middle or high school. It is already very easy to do online college.

    The books will be gone. The students will be out of the building. Why not learn how to do good work with the online environment now? You will need to soon!

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