Saturday, August 04, 2012

MOOCs and Other Online Courses Don't Have to Be as Good as Face-to-Face Courses

OK, I'm kidding. But now that I have your undivided attention, let me take this opportunity to turn the tables on all of the shrill critics of online education who are still out there, and you know who you are -- those of you who nodded in sage agreement when you read about the Babson Group's survey "Conflicted, Faculty and Online Education 2012," that found that most of the faculty respondents expressed "more fear than excitement" about online education.

Indeed, the Babson survey has unleashed yet another round of naysaying articles in the academic press whose authors confidently proclaim that online courses can never be as good as face-to-face courses. But if your read them closely, you realize that what they are really saying is that online courses can never be as good as the best face-to-face courses, to which I respond, "Maybe, maybe not, but so what?"

As an engineering undergrad, I took five courses per semester for four years. That's 40 courses ... and of that 40, I was only excited by four: World Literature, American History, Real Variables, and Quantum Mechanics. That's it. Four out of 40. Ten percent. Ten percent of my undergraduate courses were great courses. The rest just provided minimal to mediocre opportunities for me to learn the basics of their subject matter. Had I been surveyed when I was a student, I would have expressed more disappointment than excitement ... more boredom than excitement.

Perhaps I was disadvantaged. Perhaps I was deprived because my alma mater was famous, but at that time it wasn't one of the "great" universities in Lake Woebegon where all of the courses are above average. Maybe you were luckier than I was, so maybe 20 percent of your courses were great. But I defy any readers to honestly say that most of their undergraduate courses were great courses, memorable intellectual experiences that reshaped their views of the world.

But how could it be otherwise? Most courses at all levels at most universities are taught by professors who weren't taught how to teach. They were just thrown into classrooms where they learned by doing, bumbling along from one year to the next, unguided by experienced mentors, provided with no systematic analysis of their performance, receiving little or no feedback as to how they could teach more effectively but, hopefully, getting better ever year ... somehow. Would anyone submit to brain surgery or heart surgery if surgeons were trained this way? Whoooops ... sorry about that ... maybe I'll try a different technique next time ... Nah! ... :-(

So let's get real. Online courses don't have to be as good as the very few really great face-to-face courses. They just have to be better than most of the other 80 percent, to be specific, better than the worst 40 percent. And given how really bad our worst face-to-face courses have become, as per Arum and Roksa's justly acclaimed Academically Adrift, that's certainly an achievable challenge ... :-)

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