Who does worse in online courses, students or professors?

4 minute read

The Raw Story reports on a new study of 40,000 community college students in Washington state, which concludes that online courses are not as effective as classroom-based courses for this student population: “Research shows everyone does worse with online learning”. In particular, the story emphasizes that minorities and men do worse in the online setting.

We found that what the students really wanted more of was a connection with their instructor. They wanted more guidance from their instructor. They wanted their instructor to be able to help motivate them with their passion and their caring for their students and how the students did, Jaggars continued. The thing about college students, you know, they come in with a lot of anxiety and insecurity about whether college is the right place for them, whether they can do this kind of work, they need an instructor thats really supportive and enthusiastic about the material and communicates that enthusiasm to the students.
If you think about a MOOC, you know, 200,000 students, and one instructor, Im not really sure how that, you know, how that connection can be made, Jaggars said.

Apples to oranges, I would say. A massively open online course (MOOC) is not going to replace small group instruction for students whose motivation is low. Nor will they replace small group instruction for motivated students in very specialized areas. There is a process of “learning how to learn” in college.

What I find interesting is how professor-focused this model of learning actually is. Appearing today in Inside Higher Ed is an essay by Andrew Ng, one of the founders of MOOC purveyor Coursera: “Learning from MOOCs”. He emphasizes that professors who adapt their material to the MOOC format discover just how much they have been doing in the classroom that really isn’t about learning the material:

Adelman discovered that in putting his course online, he became more focused on what students are experiencing, even though he wasnt in direct contact with them. When I lectured, I had to ask myself at all times What is it that I want my students to learn? In the old-fashioned lecture hall I was an entertainer, more self-focused rather than teaching-focused, but I was not conscious of this dynamic until I put a course online for the first time, he says. For me, the lectures alone were a source of continuous learning and adaptation.

If we take seriously the idea that students learn in different ways, that they come to us with different skills and competencies, then we must recognize that some will be cheated by any mode of delivery. Being “an entertainer” in a lecture hall is a great way to reach some students, to communicate enthusiasm with the subject. Others will be turned off by this style, will wonder why they are paying to listen to this professor who loves the sound of his own voice.

MOOCs and other online courses today are reinventing lots of wheels. For example, creating compelling lecture-centered content is a storytelling and film editing problem, not specifically a lecture problem. Finding good solutions that will work in courses is a matter of bringing in expertise from these specialties.

But one area where today’s MOOCs are experimenting with genuinely new innovations is in the way that students interact with each other. When we consider the differences between an online course and its classroom equivalent, the professor really is not much of a difference. The biggest difference is the number and pattern of contact with other students. Some students do great in isolation, but others work better in a group. A course that shapes the pattern of online interactions among students thereby shapes the way they can learn from each other’s progress. But how?

But through today's technological advancements, online courses are very much alive. They are part of an ecosystem that, if nurtured through community discussion forums, meetups, e-mails, and social media (like Google+ hangouts), can flourish and grow. This allows each classs community to take on a life of its own, with a distinct culture thats defined at least as much by the students as the instructor, and which even skillful instructors can only guide, but not control. Nearly every instructor that Ive spoken to has been surprised by the deep desire of students to connect with each other as well as with the teaching staff and professor.

Lots of different modes of interaction, different courses experimenting with different patterns. Some online courses have a huge range of student interactions, from total self-study to the creation of real-life meet-ups to discuss the course. Others have had notable failures, from total crashes of online commenting systems to abusive students writing anonymously on course message boards.

I am very excited about the potential of technology to create new modes of teaching. I think that online presentation can reach new communities of learners who are not served by universities or community colleges, but who are no less deserving of great learning opportunities. But creating these new learning environments will inevitably siphon off some people who previously could only obtain college-level educational opportunities at great financial expense.

At the same time, I am skeptical about effectiveness of online content. The range of experimentation now is very wide. That shows that there are lots of attempts at innovation, but very little selection favoring the best approaches. We need rigorous attempts to outline the conditions in which particular online communities facilitate learning.