Just read this article in the Atlantic Monthly regarding online education. And I read the comments afterwards — as usual, the comments lack a certain, shall we say, civility. But, there is something to be said regarding reading what’s between the lines in the aggregate of these knee-jerk, non-edited tidbits.
I come to this conversation while currently steeped in two online courses: DS106 and Udacity Intro to Statistics. It is a bizarrely schizophrenic experience. I feel when I am in one course, I am somehow “cheating” on the other one. Like, I’m having an illicit affair with an alternate learning environment.
My love of DS106 notwithstanding, there are some pragmatic advantages for my wandering mind in Udacity. Udacity frees me from the distraction of the whole teacher (“I wonder if he’s married — he really should shave more.”), the view from the windows, the students half my age, my innate anxiety over being in public groups. When I am doing the Udacity course, it’s a matter of listen, check off the box, listen, check off the box. This limited, focused activity with little distraction seems well-suited to my having to internalize very linear concepts like statistics. My sense of visual memory and tendency to be visually distracted respond well to the forced focus of the camera tightly framing the disembodied hand on the whiteboard.
But then the DS106 in me creeps into the picture. I imagine this lecturer as the whole person. I want to do a mashup of the Udacity course, mocking Sebastian Thrun’s accent, turning the statistics lecture into a comedy sketch complete with charts and graphs. The possibilities for using video, audio, writing, and acting are endless. I break out of the checkboxes and lectures and have a chance to explore my alter ego’s needs.
If one person can experience such extreme differences in online learning environments, how can we even discuss “online learning” as though it’s a monolithic thing? The Atlantic article is doing what so many articles I read these days are doing: discussing online learning as a thing you do, and then it’s done. Apparently, we need more of it, so let’s get some already. Who makes it?
From where I sit, the rock star projects in online learning — EdX, Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy stuff (let’s call it “EdUCKA”) — seem to concentrate on scale and technology. What they prove, to me, is that today’s web and networks can handle rich media over a wide scale. That’s great to know, but it’s not, by definition, “online learning.” It’s a proof of concept for how to scale an authenticated LMS beyond a single institution. Although this is touted as “open online education” it’s not really open to the web. If you’re NOT enrolled in a course, if you don’t have an account, you can’t see in. If you ARE enrolled in a course, you can’t discuss the course with the larger world, unless someone from that pool of experts chooses to enroll as well. So, really, it’s not open education. It’s more like open enrollment in the Blackboard mothership (albeit, with a slicker interface and no pesky admissions process).
Where I DON’T see the discussion heading in the popular media, and I am probably missing something, is with regard to the very real TEACHING that goes into the classroom-transcendent course. If UVa had succeeded in ousting Theresa Sullivan, if they had then developed or purchased a MOOC-sized system, what then? Would all of the professors simply attend a training session on how to “use” it, propelling UVa into the forefront of online learning? You see how ridiculous it all is.
This happens a lot. Large systems are purchased with the intention of solving all of our problems, and they don’t. On the website, this results in bland department content that simply migrates from the old system to the new system. Or publications move from paper to the web. In the world of online learning, I see a similar preconception that we simply replicate what we have done using newfangled tools in exponentially larger packages.
I say (and I am not the first to say it by a long shot), screw the investments in large expensive teaching and learning technologies. The web these days is relatively cheap, and according to “EdUCKA,” it scales quite nicely. What is LESS discussed in the popular media is how to teach online in engaging ways not to REPLACE the classroom, but to transform teaching and learning. The institution that can bottle that vision and scale it as a cultural movement, with the same vigor and budget most others put into launching enterprise systems, will be the institution to define what online learning is and can become. That will be the institution to watch, and I have a feeling it won’t be Harvard, and it won’t be UVa.