An Online Education Odyssey

There has been tremendous buzz about online higher education in recent years, both from insiders and reformers. Much of it is deserved—obviously, there’s a lot of new technology out there with great potential for teaching and learning. But there is also a lot of confusion.

One thing I often wonder is how much familiarity many of the writers praising or condemning online higher education have with their target. My guess is that, all too frequently, they have little or none.

I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, nor do I pretend to have conducted a comprehensive review of online education. But I have participated in a total of six online courses in the last 13 or 14 years and therefore have some observations to make.

The first point I’d like to make is that online is a delivery system only. The quality of the course still depends on the choice of materials and pedagogical techniques. Also, there are many different types of online education and many different reasons for people to take online courses. A one-size-fits-all perspective is maybe not the best way to go. 

Another matter of major concern is that online education continues to evolve and improve. The very first online course I took was back in 1999, at a community college in New Jersey. The course was in business software applications: how to use programs such as Microsoft Excel and Access at a very basic level. At the time, I was learning to program in C++ and was taking several courses in database management, so the course was less than challenging for me.

However, it filled a requirement for my A.A.S. in Information Systems without demanding much effort. I was taking five other computer and math courses and working part-time that semester so anything I could do to lighten the load was desirable.

To put it bluntly and in college student terms, the course was a joke. You were given a list of simple commands to do while using the software programs: “Enter the number 56 in cell B5,” “Hit the Enter key,” and so on. If you followed all the commands properly, everything came out right—monkey-see, monkey-do.

To be fair, I believe it was only the school’s second online course, and the teachers (like the rest of the educational world) were struggling with how to create a meaningful online educational experience. Still, to rate the course on a scale of one to ten, I would need to use fractions.

Fast-forwarding to November and December of this year, I was asked to participate in something like a “focus group” for a new online college called Libertas U. The technical sophistication was pretty amazing: I could select my very own online “avatar,” which (or whom?—this avatar thing is confusing) I controlled for a variety of physical activities: walk, sit down, stand up, raise its (my?) arm.

The Libertas U. courses are also teleconferenced in such a way to make it as much like being in a classroom as possible—for people scattered around the country or even the whole world. I could walk my avatar into a classroom, sit down at a table with other avatars, and have verbal discussion with them (including the lecturer’s avatar), pretty much as if we were doing it in real life. The use of avatars adds a personal dimension to online education that is missing in other platforms (I also appreciated having a young, thin avatar with a full head of hair, now that I share none of those qualities).

Most of my online education experiences have been somewhere in between those two extremes. In 2000, I took my second online course. It was at Richard Stockton College, also in New Jersey, in art history. The only reason I took it—and I am sure many of the other 50 or 60 people in course felt the same—was because it was a coveted “two-fer” for the school’s general education program; it fulfilled both the history requirement and the art requirement with a single course.

We used a traditional textbook, and the course consisted of reading the book (and looking at art) and then answering questions online at our convenience. Other than an art “project” that was a little too much like elementary school for me, in which we had to create some sort of scrapbook (the details escape me now), I rather enjoyed the class—partly because it was a break from a strict diet of math and technical subjects.

In the final class, in which we met for only the second time to turn in our projects, the teacher looked at me a little funny when I introduced myself. I got the impression that I was the only person in the class who had taken the writing assignments seriously.

In 2011, out of professional curiosity, I spent some time watching a lecture series called “Great Big Ideas,” created by The Floating University, a new educational media venture co-founded by internet forum Big Think and a real estate/construction firm, the Jack Parker Corporation.  The series was actually a course offered to freshmen at Harvard, Yale and Bard College. One hour-long lecture was given by each of twelve top professors at such schools as Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Columbia.

Many of the professors were excellent lecturers who spoke on some of the most important topics in their particular fields. The production quality was first rate. Yet, other lectures turned into infomercials encouraging students to major in the lecturers’ disciplines.

Altogether, the course was a bit disjointed and superficial, perhaps a case of  “too many cooks spoil the broth.” I don’t know what was expected of students in the actual classes at Yale, Harvard, or Bard, but for us Internet onlookers, there were multiple-choice quizzes to take after each lecture. Unfortunately, they almost made me feel like I was taking a driving test at the DMV.

This vapid sort of testing highlights a frequent complaint about online lecture series and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as the Great Big Ideas program. (MOOCs are intended to be viewed by thousands; there is no interaction between students and lecturers.) Even MOOCs that can provide real college credits demand too little in the way of “output” from students. It’s expensive to grade tests and papers for thousands of students, but without rigorous examination, it’s hard for schools and students to know if they really comprehend the material.

This year, for my own personal edification rather than for any official credential, I took two online philosophy for-credit courses that were not MOOCs. One, in epistemology, was at American Public University, an online for-profit school that began as part of (and is still aligned with) American Military University. The other, in the philosophy of science, was with Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, which offers a wide variety of options from weekend-long seminars to programs that lead to an actual degree from Oxford.

There were many similarities between the two courses. The formats of both were a mix of text, original source readings, and a discussion board on which students made comments about the readings and about each others’ comments. Neither course involved recorded lectures or films, but both included a small amount of written instruction by the professor. The professors—actual Ph.D.s—also joined in and commented on some discussion board entries, making corrections and suggestions for further learning.

Insufficient teacher involvement is one of the great drawbacks of this type of online education; in both courses, the feedback from the professors seemed inadequate. My teacher in the Oxford course remarked that her contract required her to work only an average of five hours per week for the duration of the course. Yet, the demands of teaching online are not insignificant; explaining difficult ideas through written communications requires more time than when it is face-to-face.

Plus, students often find themselves struggling to ask the right question, which a teacher can deal with easily in person but not so easily online. The discussion boards are meant to help with the teacher’s shortage of time, with students helping each other out through criticism. Yet, it doesn’t always work that way.

My APU course had only three students; in the Oxford course some fairly advanced students assumed the role of class “expert” even though their knowledge was perhaps biased, limited, or false. The Oxford discussion board often went off on tangents and personal topics that could be confusing to somebody who was new to the material like myself. 

There can also be a bit of an intimidation factor on discussion boards as well. As a professional journalist, I don’t have a problem being criticized, but I do not put anything in print that I am not sure of factually. Not so when it comes to asking “stupid” but necessary questions in a classroom setting, since you are being corrected by the teacher and not another student who wishes to show off.

Another way these courses attempt to make up for the lack of instruction is by assigning massive amounts of reading. In one week of the APU course, I was expected to read 200 pages, about 80 pages from Kant’s A Critique of Pure? Reason—one of the densest books ever written—with the rest from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (not exactly a thriller, either). That’s a lot of reading for a busy professional to fit into his or her schedule. Despite really trying to keep up, I found myself feeling buried four or five weeks into the eight-week APU term.

Which reveals another problem. One of the great pluses of online education is supposed to be that working people can go to school part-time on their own time without turning their lives into a frantic struggle to meet deadlines. Yet the extremely intense eight-week session at APU (ten for Oxford) is better for full-time students who can devote themselves to completing courses quickly. Taking one three-credit course in eight weeks is the workload equivalent of taking two three-credit classes over a typical 15- or 16-week semester. For somebody like me, that’s too much. I had hoped to enjoy the courses; instead, they were ordeals. Also, when cramming in knowledge as fast as possible, there tends to be a decrease in both understanding and long-term retention.

Still, despite the drawbacks in these two courses, I survived and some learning occurred.

That brings me back to my avatar at Libertas U. The fact that we could have real-time conversations (avatar-to-avatar rather than face-to-face) diminishes some of the problems that I described from my two philosophy classes. (Whether schools will soon have one-on-one avatar-to-avatar office hours for individual instruction remains to be seen, but certainly the capabilities are there).

Yet the real-time lectures of Libertas exposed another problem: a live online lecture must be more lively and more focused to hold an audience’s attention than does a traditional classroom lecture. Not only does the Internet hold an infinite number of distractions, such as checking one’s email, but the physical presence of a teacher gives traditional classroom students no choice but to struggle with a teacher who drones or rambles. A boring teacher will quickly chase away online students. Online is a bit like television, a medium for performers, not dusty cloistered academics (no matter how brilliant). Only a disciplined speaker who gets to the point quickly and can explain things simply is likely to draw students.

So in my experience, online education has come a long way, but it still has a way to go. It may be that, in the foreseeable future, the best online programs will approach but not quite match the quality of good traditional venues But a lower-cost substitute for the real thing is not all bad—there are many situations in for which online education will be a better solution than the traditional. It offers great flexibility and variety, a great development at a time when people are adopting “lifelong learning” mindsets rather than ending their educations in their early twenties. As the difference in quality between online and traditional education narrows, online should become an increasingly valuable alternative for getting a college education or to just learn more about a specific body of knowledge or skill.

And it will assuredly continue to evolve and improve, as long as guild-like resistance from traditional schools and accrediting regulations are overcome.  If that happens, higher education innovation will flourish, and maybe my avatar will meet your avatar in class some day.