Getting the Details of Online Courses Right Is Likely to Be More Difficult Than Anticipated

I’m afraid I’ve been absent from blogging for quite a while, but am eager to pick it up again on a more regular basis … and one reason I’ve been away from blogging is some work on online higher ed.  There’s a lot of discussion about MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – and while I don’t doubt that these will play an important role in the future of higher ed, at the moment I’m more preoccupied with the basics of how live classroom courses in universities today integrate online work into them.  To cut to the chase, it’s a lot harder than it looks, and it happens badly – not just badly, but in ways that make learning more difficult if not impossible – a lot more often than I would have guessed, just based on some informal work I’ve been doing in the area (i.e., as a teacher and faculty looking to make better use of these options and practical recommendations on how to do it, not as a researcher studying it systematically).

For example, consider a basic undergraduate accounting course that I’ve been following (not at my university, btw).  The professor is an experienced teacher who teaches well, explains things well, and is well-regarded by the students.  But the department has opted for an accounting textbook that, like so many do these days, comes with a website for doing homework and assessment online.  Okay, there are some sites that do this well – and others that don’t – and a bunch that, to judge by student and faculty complaints, do not really keep the website up to date.  So, in this case, the professor taught using a slightly different way of presenting the basic concepts, slightly different terminology, with no explanation that could be got from the book.  The professor was apologetic that the homework on the website didn’t really match the classroom methods, but she left it to the students to figure it out.  She used terminology that was not always explained in the text book, leaving students to google around to find articles to explain things – really basic things that ought to have been available in the course materials.  When I looked at sources students used, I was surprised (well, not entirely) to see just how much better Wikipedia turned out to be than the textbook.

Moreover, students were truly left in the dark because the publisher’s online homework site gave no explanations for how right or wrong answers worked.  You simply tried to solve the problem and put in an answer.  If it was right, hooray, but if it was wrong – an X, with no ability to go back and review where you might have gone wrong.  You couldn’t see your work – it didn’t preserve it – and it didn’t give you an answer that showed the work, or even an answer at all – just an X.  Instead, if you tried to start again, you got a slightly different problem with brand new numbers.  In effect, the publishers had decided to combine “homework” with “testing,” presumably to save development costs.  The online homework site was terrible; I’m not sure any of the instructors had actually ever gone online to try it, or that the department had ever considered beta testing with groups of inexperienced students.  Worse, though you could try work arounds like a near endless number of screen shots, the site made printing of your work nearly impossible – deliberately so, apparently, in order to protect the publisher’s work product and materials – yet another hurdle in the way of actual learning.

Combined with a mismatch of the teacher’s terminology and methods and those of the website – it might be obvious to Volokh readers what LIFO or FIFO are, for example, but it’s not to most college freshman or sophomores, and they might easily spend hours trying to figure it out by googling at near random – students in this class seemed to spend hours just trying to do the homework, whereas the method required on the exam was different enough that even successfully doing the homework wasn’t a help to exam prep.  Not much of a mismatch between the professor and the department’s approved homework site, and not one that the teacher or the department thought enough to worry about – but in fact just enough to make learning very difficult and hugely wasteful.  In effect, doing the homework was a complete waste of time in prepping for the teacher’s lectures or exams – but you had to complete them for credit.

The striking thing was the number of students who flat-out failed the course and had to retake it.  They included many students who would go on to accounting and finance majors – these were not students who couldn’t do perfectly fine in basic accounting class, but instead were clobbered by small yet cumulatively large problems in the delivery of the educational experience.  And yet, once again, the department’s incentive was to use a website that didn’t require the instructor to grade homework – and the instructor didn’t have any big incentives to retool the course around the website.  Indeed, in a lot of situations, instructors trying to eke out a living teaching for low pay at a bunch of different schools wouldn’t begin to have the ability to grade individual homework assignments – or even review the department’s decisions on course materials or online homework or testing sites.  It’s overly harsh to say the school didn’t seem distressed at collecting another few thousand dollars on students retaking the course, but certainly the university paid no price for failing students.

While this is mere anecdote, I’ve seen lots of similar “accumulation of small errors” problems in looking at online integration.  I could have talked about the Spanish department in a still different university, for example, in which the online homework bore no relationship to the actual course syllabus – neither the instructors nor the department ever having bothered to check, apparently.  Or the basic statistics course, at a third university, in which the homework spreadsheets could only be turned in using a Windows machine – on a college campus, no less.  Not systematic observation, of course; I’ve been noting this merely in the course of trying as an instructor to figure out how to effectively integrate online work into courses, not as a systematic researcher.

When I’ve pointed this out to people who might be in a position to change things, the reaction is to shrug and say, well, the competent students will figure out a way to make it work.  This of course amplifies one of the worst features of American high school and higher education – delivering a product in an incompetently conceived and managed supply chain, and then rewarding the students who are best able to make up the shortfalls in the chain, usually because they have already acquired the basic knowledge elsewhere.  It rewards the wrong sort of strategizing and shifts costs onto the students who might most benefit from actual education in the actual topic of the course.

The excuse for much poor delivery of education by higher ed, in other words, often simply shifts gears and says, well, we’re not really about education – we’re about “sorting.”  If you’re a competent student, you’ll get it despite us.   Agency costs tend not to favor the student – sure, they might in things that don’t matter so much, such as cool gym facilities and dorms, offices of sustainability and many student services – but students are not in an easy position to address basic delivery failures in the educational product itself.  I’m not seeking to suggest that some kind of pure “customer” model of student is right either, so that the student is simply the consumer in a very, very expensive Starbuck’s and professors are simply baristas delivering an expensive product, where the student has no obligations as a learner and self-driven agent.  But many of the small hurdles in the process of integrating online and classroom education in higher ed, so far as I can tell, are not the fault of students; they are just the bad coordination of online infrastructure.

My larger point is that “delivery” of an effectively integrated course is a lot harder and a lot more detail-oriented than it looks.   An accumulation of small problems – not just the mismatch between instruction and online terminology, but the fact that the homework site made learning from mistakes effectively impossible.  The inability, due to the publisher’s work product protection, even to print off what you did online.  The general lack of incentive on the part of the department or the university to truly fix it.  It’s possible that trying to integrate the classroom experience with an online component is actually the worst of all delivery worlds – trying to meld the real and the virtual, seamlessly.  But the sense out there among educators seems to be that if you say online (kind of like the boss in Dilbert cartoons), it means you’ve essentially outsourced the problem and your life will be cheaper and easier, and students’ lives will be cheaper and easier.

In some setting and contexts, I’m sure it’s true now and I’m quite sure it will get better.  Some products work quite well – Blackboard, for example – but from what I’ve seen looking around campuses, this is because it is used mostly for individual professors in their individual classes.  The hard part is when the parts of the curriculum, the department and its sequencing of courses, textbooks, and then all the online accoutrements have to be coordinated – it resembles supply chain issues in important respects.  And with all due respect to textbook publishers, their online sites are often pedagogical disasters.

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