Friday, May 17, 2013
Online education, pro and con (but mostly pro)
A recent New York Times article describes a conflict over online courses that has erupted at San Jose State University. Members of the philosophy department there wrote an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel objecting to using materials from his online social justice course in their own curriculum. Speaking as someone totally devoted to quality undergraduate education, I have several criticisms of the SJSU letter.
Before getting to that specifically, this is a good context in which to discuss the advantages of online education (or, somewhat more broadly, use of technology in the curriculum). In this essay, Alex Tabarrok makes some very compelling points in support of online education. An online course can be much more than simply videotaping traditional lectures and making them available to students: for example, delivery of content through a series of short, easily digestible video lectures, online mediation of interaction among students and between students and faculty, etc. My takeaway from this essay was that technological delivery of a course is a good substitute for a large lecture course, and in some ways is superior. On the other hand, Alex gives short shrift to the advantages of small, highly interactive classes. There are some concrete benefits of in-person interaction that are extremely difficult if not impossible to replicate online.
I have been thinking about an ideal of the university, throwing away institutional inertia and making the best possible use of all the resources, technological and human, available to us. That's still brewing. When considering how our educational system will actually evolve, it seems clear that new technologies will become more integrated, but in what specific ways and to what extent are open questions. I would hate to see widespread resistance to these changes for the wrong reasons.
The SJSU letter basically argues that the adoption of online courses is driven by financial considerations and comes at the expense of quality. I don't think that the letter's authors are acknowledging how much the financial issues matter, or the degree to which quality can be maintained or even enhanced with technology. Perhaps we could all agree that, financial considerations aside, the best higher education scenario would be very small classes taught by faculty with very light teaching loads who can devote a great deal of time and energy to research also. (I don't think that all students would prefer this, because some value anonymity in the classroom, but I'm not quite sure what to do with that.) Of course, it would be impractical to implement this scenario for the entire population of undergraduates in the US. Larger class sizes, for at least some classes, arise from resource constraints. Although this is not ideal, it's not unreasonable. This is especially so when we recognize that these constraints do not dictate uniformly large class sizes: universities face a trade-off when planning course offerings, and students have a variety of options to choose from. At a large university, a student might take some large lecture courses along with small seminars. Some students choose to attend a small college with much smaller average class sizes, but perhaps at greater expense--in terms of direct costs as well as the sacrifice of opportunities that are only available at a large university.
The cost of a university education has risen dramatically in recent decades and is prohibitive for many potential students. Is adoption of online courses driven by financial considerations? Of course it is. This is not self-evidently bad, as the SJSU philosophers (let me just call them SJSU-P for brevity) seem to assume. Even if online classes are less than ideal, making use of them is no more unreasonable than offering large traditional classes. Hasty attempts to integrate new technologies into the curriculum could lead to all sorts of problems; but categorically rejecting these technologies based on a cavalier dismissal of resource constraints is likely to be counterproductive.
SJSU-P fear that widespread adoption of online courses will lead to "two classes of universities," the traditional kind for those who can afford it and the online version for those who can't. They do not acknowledge that classes of universities exist already. We have everything from community colleges to highly selective liberal arts colleges and elite research universities, and students have substantially different experiences, and arguably obtain educations of differing quality, at different institutions. Students are constrained by universities' screening processes as well as their ability to pay, and thus do not typically have access to the full range of choices. Without a drastic restructuring of our whole society, we will never have anything like uniformity of access to education. Furthermore, rejecting the use of online courses could make the feared class distinction worse, not better: those who cannot afford a traditional education get nothing.
SJSU-P acknowledge some of the benefits of technology in education, but only in the context of a blended course where all material is developed in-house. They adamantly oppose bringing materials in from outside the university. (I should mention that there could be many reasonable objections to the specific way in which SJSU has implemented the social justice course that led to the open letter. However, the letter is clearly intended to raise broader concerns about online education, and I am addressing these concerns.) This opposition disregards much of the potential benefit that Alex Tabarrok notes in the essay mentioned above. He draws an extended analogy between movies and online courses, where simply videotaping a lecture is akin to videotaping a play, creating a poor substitute for being present in the theater. While producing a movie is generally much more expensive than a single performance of a play, the ability of many consumers to view the same movie makes it worthwhile to incur the cost. I don't know if Sandel's course falls into this category, but a well executed online course is far superior to a videotaped lecture, and is in some ways better than a traditional course at delivering content and fostering interaction (please see the essay for elaboration). There is no need for a university to replicate the elements of a good online course; the focus should instead be on complementing it (more on that below).
I have a hard time understanding SJSU-P's objection to the adoption of the same online course by many universities. Traditional courses at different universities often have much in common, especially in terms of the material that is covered. Differences are most likely to exist in the format of the class and the nature of interaction between students and professor. If a course is too narrowly focused, disregarding the "diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view" mentioned in the letter, then that isn't a good course for anyone. Any given student is probably only going to take a single social justice course, and if that course takes on its subject matter without being parochial, then why is it "downright scary" for "the exact same social justice course [to be] taught in various philosophy departments across the country"? This objection is especially weak when we acknowledge the possibility of complementing the online course from an outside vendor with in-person services at the university using the online course.
Another of their objections is that greater adoption of online courses will turn professors into "glorified teaching assistants." I'll go out on a limb and say "Well, why not?" The view of the professor as lecturer (who only talks, while students only listen) is becoming increasingly outdated. Many faculty have moved further and further away from simply delivering content during class, and technology has hastened this movement. It is useful to rethink the role of the professor as this trend continues. When we have really good ways of delivering content outside of the classroom, the professor can use class time for other activities that foster learning. Some of these activities may coincide with those of a teaching assistant or tutor, although I would prefer calling a faculty member who focuses on these activities a "mentor." In any case, the role of faculty is to enable students to learn, and we should be open-minded as to how we can best perform that role.
SJSU-P take quite a narrow view of a blended course. Using resources like Sandel's online course has some clear benefits, and is especially appealing if we acknowledge that costs matter. The best blended course makes the best possible use of all resources available, not just those available in-house. We can apply this thinking more broadly across the curriculum: some classes could be taught primarily or exclusively in-person, others primarily online. The best mix would depend on the specifics of the class as well as student demand. In some cases, it would make sense for an entire department's offerings to be primarily online. Say a university has a weak economics department, and perhaps is unable to offer an economics major, but offers courses required by other majors. If these courses were delivered online, then most of the resources that were used on economics could be used elsewhere in the university, potentially to greater benefit. It works in the other direction as well: for example, a small college that is unable to offer any in-person courses in sociology could potentially realize a large benefit of offering students some online sociology courses. In these kinds of instances, a department could still have an in-person presence at the university, such as one faculty member to act as mentor for all of the course offerings. Many academics will cringe at this, but I think we have to be brutally honest in assessing our objections to online courses: how much of it is concern about the quality of education, and how much is fear for our jobs?
I certainly do not want to understate the value of face-to-face interaction between students and professors. In my own courses, I try to focus on exactly those things that are most difficult to do in an online course. At the best of times, my classes are like a conversation between me and my students. I am constantly updating my read on how interested in and comfortable with the topic at hand they are. I take their questions not so much as things to be answered as starting points for discussions, and I often respond to questions that students have but are unable to articulate. I do have to spend a substantial amount of class time covering material that could probably be covered just as well or better outside of class. I would not object to teaching twice as many classes but meeting with them half as often--solely for questions, discussion and problem-solving--if I could require students to view interactive videos of my choosing (but not my creation). I suspect that students would feel that I'm not really doing my job if I'm directing them to someone else's video lectures; but on the other hand, if this allows instructors to handle twice as many classes, students would see the benefit in terms of lower tuition. I haven't tried to create my own online content, and unless I would be unusually good at it (which I doubt), it's better to leave that role to someone else.
I doubt that an exclusively online education can ever be as good as a well-executed in-person or blended curriculum, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be an option. I don't think that online courses will take over entirely, because in-person interaction will always offer additional benefit. I think that large lecture courses will disappear entirely and would already be making their last gasp if not for institutional and social inertia. Education delivered solely or primarily in person will probably continue to exist but will be relatively expensive. None of these are bad things. Of course there are some pitfalls to avoid, but I think we faculty should embrace and focus on the positives, and we should be involved in the changes taking place at our universities. I'll say again that there could be reasonable objection to SJSU's implementation of Sandel's course, but the philosophy faculty have presented a not very well founded criticism of online education in general. I would hate to see legitimate concerns get lost in the debate.