Backlash builds against online classes

A man works on his computer in a newly opened reading room at the New York Public Library specifically for online users in New York, N.Y.

Last fall Duke University announced a plan to offer online courses -- for credit -- through a company called 2U. Last week Duke’s faculty said “not so fast.”

Some professors didn’t like how the administration handled the deal, says Tom Robisheaux, chair of the Duke Arts and Sciences Council, which voted down the contract. Others just aren’t wild about teaching online.

“I think we at Duke need a little bit more time to think about this,” he says. “The only way we will get experience and answers to some of these questions is actually to try a pilot project at some point.”

With more people questioning the high price of a degree, colleges are scrambling to figure out how to use technology to save money and stay competitive. As more of them turn to online classes, some professors are pushing back.

Earlier this month faculty at Amherst College rejected an invitation to team up with Harvard and MIT to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for free.

“We work with students pretty closely and the idea of teaching 100,000 students remotely just doesn't seem like it fit Amherst’s goals and values,” says Stephen George, professor of biology and neuroscience.

Faculty at both schools say they haven’t ruled out online education. A handful of professors at Duke already teach MOOCs, says Robisheaux.

They’re also aware of the risks of getting left behind.“There are very powerful reasons to want to do it if it is a great movement and that’s the direction of the future,” says Amherst’s Stephen George. “Either way is risky.”

Tenured professors have been slow to embrace online education, says Elaine Allen with the Babson Survey Research Group. In an annual survey, less than a third of chief academic officers said their faculty accept the value of teaching online.

“Over the ten years that we have done our survey, faculty opinion of online education really has not changed,” Allen says.

And it may not, she says, until her generation of college professors retires.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
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A company called IVN has live video avatar software (Silhouette) that puts people in 3D worlds as live images with associated synchronized audio. With Silhouette, each user in a virtual world is able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar in real time.

One of the key areas that would seem ideal for Silhouette is the MOOC education arena. Unfortunately with these online courses there is minimal opportunity for real time face-to-face communication between students. It is felt that the use of virtual classrooms and virtual study groups with live video avatars in real time could bridge this gap. The heightened sense of presence and realism would facilitate more effective instruction and social networking. Silhouette would allow each online student to connect to and feel present in a real school type atmosphere and educational community, as well as establish "real time" face-to-face relationships with other classmates, as well as with their respective teachers.

A proof of concept demo of Silhouette is available at www.ivn.net

I am disappointed with the quality of this article and their implication that tenured professors are against online course because they are old and out of touch with technology. Perhaps the consistency of their opinions reflects continued deficiencies in online education. I also instruct at the college level, and in my observations of students taking online courses, friends taking online courses, and my curiousity driven personal foray into MOOCs, there are some darn good reasons to be wary:

No meaningful honor code: Preventing plagiarism and cheating in person is difficult, but with careful observation, comparison of handwriting, careful proctoring, and threats, it is somewhat possible. You have no ability to police students you never even meet. The anonymity and distance make cheating such a low hanging fruit for online students there is no way for a professor to feel truly confident that when they assign a grade, they are attributing success to the person who paid to take the course. For schools like Amherst with extremely strict honor code policies, allowing variability in the policing and enforcement of honor code policies goes against their values and goals as an institution.

Lack of quality control: One MOOC I took was of a significantly higher quality than two undergrad courses I saw taken for credit at a state universities. The MOOC had a high quality instructor, many lectures with interspersed interactive questions, an excellent free textbook, frequent and challenging assignments, and digital tools to help students comprehend the material. The paid courses were a mess. One had open book exams, so easy that you could achieve a perfect score without studying. The other had no available video lectures- instead the professor provided the students with shoddily written outlines which rambled on for many pages, but had no educational value.

Online education has the _potential_ to be revolutionary in providing affordable, high quality, flexible education. When that potential is realized, I have a feeling the technology will be adopted and accepted by many of those old, out-of-touch professors.

I absolutely agree with the previous comment. I don't understand why so little credence is given to the opinions of experienced professors; I'm a fairly tech-savvy younger instructor (one of those adjuncts earning poverty-level wages with no job security) and even I completely agree with the professors surveyed. Granted, that's partially because my field is composition; research in my field backs up the notion that small classes (under 20 students) and one-on-one feedback are key to student learning. Even smaller online and hybrid courses pose unique challenges to both instructors and students, and I honestly think MOOCs sound like glorified book clubs. Maybe there are effective ways to deliver course content online, but much more research is needed to determine what kinds of courses, and what kinds of course delivery systems, will lead to actual learning. The bottom line is: if "teaching" is happening, but learning isn't, we've failed. I wish more universities would keep that in mind.

Because this story lacks details about why faculty might oppose online courses, I fear it leaves the listener thinking tenured faculty oppose online learning because they are either (a) old and scared of technology and/or (b) too invested in their brick-and-mortar jobs to consider changes.

While either or both of those might be true for some, this piece doesn't address larger reasons to be skeptical of online learning. As a young, tech-savvy, college-level instructor, I think online courses will never be able to replace the face-to-face interaction of a classroom. What's sometimes overlooked is that college is about more than learning facts and absorbing information. It's about learning how to think, and how to think like a ____ (insert discipline).

Most students in my classes who wouldn't get much from course materials if we didn't meet to think through them together. This is particularly true of young students who are more accustomed to memorization than they are examining the complexity of a situation.

This week, for example, we talked about HIV in Nigeria. Students came to class chanting the "Educate them!" refrain we're all accustomed to hearing. It took much of the class period to walk through the thought process about education, and why it might not be enough in the face of local conceptions of masculinity, the purpose of family, etc. and help them have a more nuanced picture of the real world in all its real complexity.

An online course can't do that. It can't do that because a digital instructor can't scan the faces in a classroom and understand she needs to spend more time on X concept, and less on Y. Or students' unexpected lack of prior knowledge requires 10 minutes of background conversation. Or see the lightbulb moment, and know she's been successful.

Cost-cutting measures shouldn't look to the classroom first. Instructors are already being squeezed, with most college instructors today employed as adjuncts, earning poverty-level wages with no job security. Why not look to cut cost in the multi-million dollar rec centers, sports programs, or excessive lawn and flower maintenance? It seems a better idea than decreasing the quality and quantity classroom instruction while increasing the resort-like amenities of major institutions.

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