Online Learning: The New Buzz Phrase Waiting for a Definition

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.


#1 sgreenla on 07.06.12 at 11:03 am

That’s what we’re trying to do with the UMW Online Learning Initiative:

Just sayin’

#2 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 07.06.12 at 11:11 am

Steve, you clearly got my reference in the final sentence — perfect segue! You’re awesome!

#3 Reverend on 07.06.12 at 11:41 am

Your writings about online learning these last weeks have been awesome, and your actually locking in and taking two very different approaches to online learning makes the reflections that much richer. I really respect you taking the time and energy to experiment with Udacity and ds106, and I think your razor sharp insights on this blog as of late are a direct result of your commitment. Kudos!

#4 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 07.06.12 at 11:47 am

I am humbled.

#5 Andy Rush on 07.06.12 at 11:49 am

Cathy, this really is another GREAT post from you. What most of the recent articles do is basically state what you said which is, “hey, it’s like, learning, but online!” No one (until this) paints the pictures of how it replaces it. You provide lots of concrete examples of what is missing in the online version which is the experience of being in a place, and learning. It’s why I think DS106 is so great, because it creates a space. What I’ve seen of other MOOCs, they don’t do that (at least not to any real extent). Some people who care will be left wanting. People who just want the credits won’t give a crap. It’s obvious you care, and your thoughts about it are on target and should move us forward. Good stuff.

#6 Alan Levine on 07.06.12 at 12:45 pm

Cathy’s out with blazing guns, love it, especially the observation of a human tendency to reduce complexity to single entities, or more common in education, binaries (“online” vs “face to face”).

The big money massive courses are gonna happen, they are in motion. But do you know there is an entire side of the equation missing?

This not so new notion of online learning is focused on the provider side- the tools of EdUCKA (my new favorite acronym), or what an institution like UMW creates as its online offerings, or the stuff we hang out there for ds106. But its success totally depends on what the learner brings to the plate.

You have created sufficient internal motivation to propel you through two different forms of online (open or not) courses. I can write a list of open courses I have started and left in a week (Udacity, Connectivism) not because of too many faults in the design, but I just did not parse enough effort/time to commit.

So there is going to be a segment of the potential world learning population who will summon the sufficient motivation to succeed in these environments, and given the scale of their massiveness, the numbers (!0% completion? 20%?) will be significant in absolute numbers. But my hunch is the majority of people in the world who could learn from this stuff, will not succeed in this “row your own boat” approach.

It’s a business mindset, like the way the old late night TV commercials selling crap only needing something like a 1 or 2% response rate to come out ahead.

And what we do as a university (in the comprehensive sense of the word) – is to aim for a wider, broader range of success. I see a lot of people out there who we can serve, teach, grow who are not in the population who succeed at EdUCKA (there is overlap I am sure to some degree)- so why should we try and go after them?

Are we after a world populated by people skilled and certified in things that will help them get jobs, or are we interested in a world of educated people? Actually, look at me setting up a binary, hee hee.

Just saying that we ought to be putting our energy towards the people who do not have the drive to succeed in EdUCKA- like me.

But it also means doing it an open collaborative non-wheel re-invention mode, we have to go about online learning in less of a cottage industry mode- the OLI is a great example of moving in that direction.

#7 Brian on 07.06.12 at 1:03 pm

What a treat to come across your analysis. I think your instincts are dead-on, and you have a gift for presenting your observations in a lively way.

I’m in the process of leaving a big, elite institution for a smaller place that I hope will see the value in light-footed innovation. UMW is one of the examples I have been citing as a role model, and along those lines I’m grateful for the reminder from Steve to check out the Online Learning Initiative — it’s looking great. A good prod to look in on Steve’s blog again as well.

Subscribed. I’ll be reading and clicking.

#8 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 07.06.12 at 1:36 pm

Now I am truly humbled.

#9 Smithstorian on 07.06.12 at 4:36 pm

This was a fantastic thought-provoking post, Cathy. Definitely dove-tails with a post I just finished reading at The Chronicle, “”What’s the Matter With MOOCs?” by Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid, blogger on U Va presidential ouster incident).

Your insight, from the perspective of an expert who is an actual consumer of online curriculum is most valuable and greatly appreciated. I am subscribing and look forward to reading much more from you! Thanks!

#10 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 07.06.12 at 6:14 pm

Thank you so much. You are too kind.

#11 dkernohan on 07.09.12 at 9:03 am

Superb post Cathy, thanks for sharing & for doing all the work behind it. The MOOC movement(s) are causing a lot of unpicking of our concepts of learning, and I think you are getting to the heart of this here.

And I would *love* to see a ds106-esque deconstruction of an “X” MOOC. Add that to the assignment database 🙂

(added your feed to my list)

#12 Natalie Anderson on 07.09.12 at 11:09 am

Cathy, I don’t know you (personally) but I really like your insights. I work for Pearson, and I am fascinated by what’s happening in Higher Ed right now (EdUCKA–love it!), even though it may result in my not having a job down the road. My colleagues at Pearson Vue are working on some cool stuff with Udacity as far as using Vue Testing Centers to administer certification exams. It will be very interesting to see what happens once you can get a degree in CS via Udacity’s MOOCs (or any other degree from EdUCKA). Would love to hear how you think that might play out.

Can’t wait to read more.

#13 Online Learning: The New Buzz Phrase Waiting for a Definition | The Transparent University | on 07.10.12 at 12:23 pm

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#18 Joseph Ugoretz on 07.16.12 at 10:39 am

Some very good thoughts about MOOCs, here, but the acronym “EduCKA” has got a fatal flaw. The “KA” part is completely inaccurate. Khan Academy, although they may be a “rock star” is not a MOOC, has nothing to do with MOOCs, and is in no way designed or intended (or actually used) as a MOOC. Khan Academy is improving courses (and learning), not replacing them, and certainly not about scale or technology.

I guess “EduC” is not as pretty an acronym, but “EduCKA” lumps a very important and productive baby in with some very problematic bathwater.

#19 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 07.16.12 at 1:46 pm

Thank you for your comment, and I appreciate the ability to have a conversation about this. I’m not an educator, just a humble user who is on the web a a lot; with respect to pedagogy, I defer to others who are more qualified to comment on your reply. From a user perspective, is Khan Academy fundamentally different? From what I’ve seen, the system model is different in the sense that student reports can be shared with coaches and teachers, that it can be used for “flipped classrooms” vs. just for individual student use. Still, the way in which the courses are delivered, and the skills-based training at its core, seems essentially the same as what I’ve seen in other systems. Also, I’m not sure it can be said it’s not about scale when they state that Khan Academy has a goal of “…changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” That seems kind of scale-driven to me, as opposed to pedagogically-driven. But, again, not being an educator, I am looking at this as a user of these systems and, too me, it’s not fundamentally different.

#20 Suzanne Aurilio on 07.22.12 at 6:02 pm

“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.”

Thing is, teaching and learning are the ingredients, if you will, of education, which is a social system, one that’s historically very politicized in the US.

Even the great recent educationalists (e.g., Dewey, Freire, hooks, Montessori, Bruner, Gee, etc) have not succeeded in transforming teaching and learning on the whole, but in influencing teachers, if only relatively few.

Do you know of Marva Collins? In the 70s she challenged conventional wisdom by using classical education techniques in her own inner city school, with incredible success.

Educational technology, a field informing (somewhat) the online learning boom was borne by the US military. I notice the influence. I “put courses online” by creating and working with standardized systems. I have no choice; it’s the nature of beast. There’s not an organic, spontaneous morsel to be had, that doesn’t entail spending even more time dealing with the mechanics of the systems. It’s not the type of work, I became an educator for.

Then there’s the notion of educationalizing social and economic problems. Online learning will not relieve poverty nor create more better-paying jobs. Access to educational opportunities is not enough. And ironically, there’s a growing underclass of online workers, that is, instructors with long hours, low pay and little to no benefits. I’m already seeing discontent among instructors both in and out of the academy.

So with all this in mind, I see it influencing more than transforming practice.

#21 Geoff Cain on 07.24.12 at 9:36 pm

Excellent posting. That loud bang on the internet was you hitting multiple nails right on the head. I have enjoyed watching the usual suspects (Comical of Higher Ed, etc) try to figure all of this out. I agree with you about DS 106 – how is it that Jim Groom is married?? Why doesn’t he shave more often?

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