Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Experience with Online Courses As One Way to Lower Costs in Education and Create "Edutonomy" for Students, But Does Not Replace Great Teachers

I began using online courses in 2008 when I was introduced to iTunes.  I loved the online courses from Yale University and MIT.  I took Game Theory, Western Civilization, and more, but that was not "taking" a course in the traditional sense.   I would read the material assigned, watch the lecture, and incorporate some of the material into activities I did with my own students.  When I was first learning about Forensics and Non-European History, I found it to be a god-saver as a crash course to helping me teach public school.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to take two online courses through Rutgers University.   Both courses were lead by educational practitioners (experts in the field who were actually currently working in schools).  One course was on curriculum development and the other was on supervision.  While I have taken many education classes, I was particularly skeptical about this one.  

My initial reservations included worrying about how to use the blackboard in a way I had never used before, being able to engage in the "discussion," and not having the ability for in person communication from the teacher.  I remember fondly my classes with Dr. Borland at Columbia University Teachers College and loved the book talks we engaged in during his class.  I worried this would be an experience I was missing out on.

I had chosen the courses because I wanted to take something during the summer for professional development that would help me work towards a certification in supervision.  I had a positive experience at the Rutger's AP United State History Seminar for Teachers the summer before and thought that would be a good venue to do so.  I also had childcare issues.  This seemed like a good fit for my busy schedule.

After initially overcoming some issues with Rutger's online system (login issues mostly), I began to feel my way around the course.  I actually liked having the ability and flexibility of working around my own schedule to find times in the day to comment on something I was instructed to read.  In fact, I really adored the online conversation element.  I found that I was able to express myself more clearly and give more developed answers because I had time to think about what to write.  I also found that if I had more time one week, I could look ahead and start doing the work for the next week (although I was restricted from posting responses too far in advance).  

I liked these courses so much, that when in the fall when I wanted to continue working towards certification, I immediately looked into continuing.  Unfortunately, Rutgers only did online courses for this in the summer.  Hence, I found a hybrid course online through Montclair.  A hybrid course is exactly what it sounds like.  Half of the time you "meet" online and half of the time you "meet" in person.  I willing to do this because Montclair was surely closer than New Brunswick to Teaneck and we only had to meet  in person about 5 times.  I had never attended an in class course at Montclair, but I was told they had a great teaching program by colleagues who had attended it for undergraduate degrees.  

Needless to say, I expected to have a positive experience.  However, the course was disorganized.  The instructor obvious had a lot going on and kept changing the dates we were to come into the university to meet face to face.  As a result, many students (myself included) trekked out to the school only to find out the class had been canceled that night and would be online for the week.  Besides this frustration, the teacher also assigned a ton of material much of which seemed much more theoretical than practical in any way.  Students online appeared to be talking at each other rather than having a conversation.  In person, she had us engage in staged dialogues with each other and present them to her.  Occasionally, she would lecture.  There was rarely any discussion.  I regretted signing up for the course as it was complicated traveling so far to work and then to school at night and doing the online assignments, much of which were busy work.  

While my experience is of course anecdotal, I believe it does demonstrate some strengths and weaknesses of the online format.  The online format can be excellent for a motivated student.  It works well for shy people who might not verbally communicate in class, but are more than happy to "discuss" issues online.  The depth and breadth of the discussion can also be enhanced greatly online.  However, this depends on how effective the teacher is as a facilitator of the discussion.  Also, there may be a tendency for some teachers to compensate the in class experience with piling on more material than would be expected if you met in person frequently.  

For online courses to be successful, teachers need to be trained in how to run them, they need to be organized, and discussions and material need to be carefully tailored to the objectives of the course.  For high school students looking for enrichment or to take a course not currently offered in their school, I see this as a terrific tool.  For younger students, I believe schoology can be the perfect LMS to create the course and host online discussions and post material.  However, I do believe that the student collaboration in person is also important.  While I am thrilled with the idea of motivating shy students to be more involved in class, learning how to articulate yourself before a group of people effectively is something we should and must teach all students to do.  

In a recent article called, "Online Education Trumps the Cost Disease," Alex Tarrabok paints online education as cost efficient (up to 25%) and enabling students to do more work in less time. While on the surface I agree, I think using this technology alone is a mistake in the long term. Social interaction combined with presentation skills are removed from this equation. While these courses are great for the motivated student, someone who is unmotivated might be more motivated by a relationship they develop with the teacher or fellow students to be involved in the learning process. Ideally, I think the hybrid approach solves my concerns and can work in many cases in combination with multiple teaching styles, it just did not work in my case because of how it was implemented.

Feel free to check out his Alex's article here: