Mixed Signals about Online Teaching

As many of you know, we have spend the past few months preparing for our summer institute.  Each summer, our Center for Teaching Excellence runs an intensive week-long institute on teaching with technology.  Our theme this summer is teaching online, and in concert with our Provost, we are funding twenty faculty to work with us in June at our institute, then attend the Quality Matters online  course “Build Your Online Course“, followed up with working with us through the Fall and Spring semesters as they design and deliver an online course.

As one can see from examining our institute schedule, we are going to spend the week immersed in the pedagogy of teaching online, because as we stated in our White Paper last May, we fundamentally believe that teaching online involves not just the design of content delivery, but new practices as well.

Whether one has been teaching for years or is relatively new to teaching, it is our assumption that one should not just jump into teaching online (no more than one should just jump into teaching in the classroom).  We have, I think, thoughtfully crafted a networking and learning experience for our institute participants to facilitate their development of the skills and practices needed to teach online.  Teaching online takes an investment in time, and this nearly year-long process will assist this development.

So it was interesting to see two very different references to online teaching cross my desk today.

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The first was an article in the May 9, Chronicle of Higher Education – “U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees: Proposal for virtual courses challenges beliefs about what an elite university is—and isn’t” by Josh Keller and Marc Parry”.  The University of California is rolling out a $5 to $6 million pilot project for undergraduate online courses and degrees.  They are focusing on their 25 high-demand lower-level core gateway courses.  The university plans to spend up to a quarter million dollars on each course.  The article noted that there is faculty resistance to the concept of teaching undergraduates online, although they also quote Frank Mayadas, of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as noting that piloting online courses is “…like doing experiments to see if the car is really better than the horse in 1925, when everyone else is out there driving cars.”

While I agree with Frank, it is good to see an institution as prestigious as UC exploring the use of online teaching for core courses.  They are taking a serious look at it as opposed to just opening up a bunch of sections and throwing adjuncts into them.

One issue I do have with the article by Keller and Parry is where it mentions the open content at MIT and Yale as if they were also online courses.  They are not – and MIT is explicit about this – they are content and not meant to replace online teaching and learning.  Too many in media and administrations conflate open content with online courses.  Just as a textbook does not replace the facilitated learning in a college course, neither does the online content replace the facilitated learning that takes place in good online classes.

Meanwhile on the same day – and I am not meaning here to be disrespectful to either Magna Publications or to David Penrose, an advertisement arrived in my email:

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“With Rapid Online Course Design, your faculty members and instructional designers can arm themselves with the tools and knowledge necessary to create quality courses with maximum value in a minimum of time. If your institution is struggling with online instructional design, this upcoming training seminar is for you”

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So, for only $229 and 90 minutes, you can learn what you need to teach online!

Wow!

Now…I just know in my heart that David Penrose is not suggesting this (though the marketers might be and many administrators probably do).  As the many comments in the Chronicle article attest, teaching online is work.  I think that it is fulfilling work and opens access to higher education that many might not otherwise have.  But none the less, one has to approach teaching and learning online in meaningful ways.  One cannot simply take a series of powerpoints, a few multiple choice tests, and call that an online course.

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I was therefore struck that, on the one hand, we have a prestigious research university “considering” online classes – or even degrees – and on the other hand, we have an advertisement for an online webinar addressing the high demand for online education and giving institutions the blueprint they need to meet that demand – NOW!

Thoughtful educators will see issues with both approaches.  Teaching and learning online has moved in much of higher education from a pilot phase to a mainstream method of instructional delivery.  As with face-to-face learning, the quality of instruction varies.  I applaud UC for taking a serious look at the design and delivery of quality online courses – an approach we are also taking here at VCU.  It is equally important that we continue to address these mixed signals.  Faculty development needs to clearly focus on processes that improve student learning and student success rather than simply loading content onto the web.

It is one of the reasons I look forward to the next two days at University of Mary Washington. Their Faculty Academy 2010 will once again help me learn processes that indeed do just that.

{Photo Credits: foomandoonian, gagilas, ZeroOne}

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