Online Learning – The Virtual Process As Real As Today’s Headlines – by Neil Baldwin

The Creative Research Center Attends the 16th Annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning – November 3-5, 2010 – The Caribe Royale Hotel – Orlando, Florida

“Quite honestly, the higher education industry in the United States has not been tremendously successful in the face-to-face mode if you look at national graduation rates,” [said Joe Glover, provost of the University of Florida.] “At the very least we should be experimenting with other modes of delivery of education.”   From “Still in Dorm, Because Class Is on the Web,” by Trip Gabriel, The New York Times, Front Page, November 5, 2010. 

“Apologists for the lack of retention and intuition by students argue that what really matters is that they are being taught ‘how to think.’ The reality is that because students have ever larger gaps in their knowledge as they progress, they learn to get by through pattern matching and memorizing. They learn to fake understanding, not think.”  From “YouTube U. Beats YouSnooze U,” by Salman Khan, The Chronicle of Higher Education Online Learning Special Issue, Chronicle Review, B36, November 5, 2010. 

*          *          *          *          *

It started as soon as I got into the back of the cab at Orlando Airport. My driver, a well-spoken young man named Pierre, glanced in the mirror and asked me where I was heading. When I told him, he launched into an extended dramatic monologue on the American higher education system. Growing up in Haiti, Pierre had excelled in Physics and Algebra, and still had ambitions of becoming an electrician. As soon as he had saved up enough money, he was going back to school.

In Pierre’s view, “the online aspect of education should be theoretical; and then, when it comes to hands-on, you can be real.”

After settling at the hotel, I walked over to the vast Exhibit Hall.  The vibe was intense, all about selling ways to reach educational constituencies and “decision-makers,” striving to interest the “consumer” in platforms, delivery systems, learning management programs. Annenberg, Colloquy, Waypoint, FigLeaf, Link-Systems International, Toolwire, TaskStream, Bisk, MediaSite…I fell into a lively conversation with Mitchell Syrkin, Regional Sales Manager for Follett Virtual Bookstores. I agreed that students hate lugging around $100 textbooks.   I just published an ebook myself, which makes me an early adapter. I told Mitchell how I’ve begun to build “Webliographies” into my syllabi instead of “Bibliographies,” and how the students seem to like that route.

[Note to Self: I am overwhelmed, leafing through the 120-pp. convention program, by the plethora of concurrent sessions. There’s a sense of frenzy — so much to do, so little time…but that depends upon what you want time for.  To develop the right pedagogical approach and become more usefully informed about online learning was my mission; not to find ways to monetize education.  Yet, how effectively could those intents be separated?

A quasi-traditional pedagogue in a Web world, I recognize the benefits of education on the Web; but am still finding my way, in terms of how to apply a growing fluency in and understanding of the medium to learning and teaching. Many of my dedicated colleagues feel the same. I keep returning to the basic fact that I like being with my students. When I am not in class, I think about them, and as distinct individuals.  This semester I have more than 50 students in three very different undergrad and graduate classes, and can conjure up each person’s face, voice, style, etc.  

How could I teach someone without knowing the person?

The only way I can get my mind around doing this is if the course were a “nontraditional,” abstracted, distanced experience with students — i.e., they existed appropriately in my virtual world because they were in positions/places where they could not physically get to the university, and I was offering  a professional or creative subject that lent itself to the medium. Perhaps nonprofit management…or an expository writing course  – focusing upon their work and my commentary, back and forth in drafts and critiques.

Whereas, if the intention were to make a shift involving the everyday students to whom I am accustomed, right now, I would say absolutely not. This a key factor: The constituency needs to be determined. And bear in mind the cautionary proviso that we at MSU – and, I am sure, elsewhere — don’t want these two teaching modes to enfringe upon or take away from each other.  We do not want to present an alternative that is seen as “better” or “preferential.” Rather, online and face-to-face are different channels that might be right for some people and not others.]

Here is a selection of the sessions from the Conference that I attended to give the flavor of their diversity and interest.

Our excellent keynote speaker, Barbara Means, Co-director, Center for Technology in Learning, SRI International, presented Research on the Effectiveness of Online Learning: Insights, Controversies, and Gaps, a lucid, results-oriented discussion of current findings on online vs. “conventional conditions.”  Online learning inherently recommends itself to quantification of data. Dr. Means’ astute and relevant bullet-points were well-received, and heartening to me: That the presentation-status of any course is conditioned by the subject-matter; and that we must remember to factor in “moderator variables.” She insisted early on – and I noticed many people in the Ballroom around me nodded their heads in affirmation — “just putting something online is not going to make it more effective.” Online is not an educational panacea. Rather, in redesigning the so-called learning experience, we as educators need to think about the relevance of the subject matter, and not let the medium take precedence.

I was impressed by the reasoned, cautionary tone of Dr. Means’ remarks as she underscored the importance of context for learning systems, and debunked hasty cost-effectiveness, gratuitous bells and whistles and “extraneous media.” She implied that recent research was pointing to “blended learning” as the best approach, virtual and actual presences alternating. She stressed repeatedly how open the field is, and welcomed hearing about additional research, reaching out to the entire audience to send her their empirical findings.

[At my laptop during a coffee break, I later took her advice and visited the superb Carnegie-Mellon Open Learning Inititative, with its innovative built-in, periodic assessment by students of how they are doing and whether or not they understand what they are  purportedly learning.]

I took away that we are still dealing with epistemology no matter what course platform we use; and in all cases, Dr. Means said, repeated cycles of “design, develop, refine, and implement” are obligatory to achieve the best course offering results.

W. Warren Binford and Cheryl Cramer from Willamette University College of Law gave a wry, first-hand account of how their traditional residential college gradually moved to an online learning presence over a five-year period in their engaging talk, Tiptoeing Online in a Face-to-Face World. It was a small room, maybe a dozen people in the audience, but lots of enthusiasm, because as we went around and commented, it became evident we were all in the same boat.

Profs. Binford and Cramer talked with bemused expressions about faculty resistance: “Why can’t I just continue to do what I have been already doing for the past fifteen years?” And yes, even student resistance: “OK, I can do a blog!… but Professor, how do you grade a blog?”

The first step to online curricular success, they said, is faculty training; and the 2nd step is money – this is a labor-intensive and time-consuming journey.

The Community of Inquiry Framework: Ten Years Later was the subject of a presentation by a diverse, expert panel.  I had not known of this important social constructivist model predicated upon the conviction that the best classroom learning happens when people work in collaboration rather than omnidirectionally or top-down. The Venn diagram of the three key intersecting dynamic factors social presence/real; cognitive presence/meaning; and teaching presence – synthesized into a rich environment of affect, and thus spoke powerfully to me.

“Good e-learning must rest upon a solid foundation of design,” said Lynette Nagel from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. And Norm Vaughan of Mount Royal College in Calgary stressed how much time needs to be spent in needs-analysis before an effective online program can be implemented, along with research into experiential learning as well – “what it actually is going to feel like to be in the onlilne class population. “

“Align your course development with the mission of the university!” declared Beth Rubin of Rutgers University, an advocate of the Desire2Learn LMS.  There is huge variance in availability and implementation of tools, and this must be borne in mind when so many incoming freshmen are unprepared for college, she said.

Bruce Chaloux, Chair of the Sloan Consortium Board of Directors, was the eminence grise at the Policy Issues Forum: Will Coming Changes Impact You?  There was a nagging subtext in this panel: How the current dire economic situation in America was influencing the direction of education policy on a macro level, an impression reconfirmed in The New York Times piece I quote at the beginning of this blog. Draconian budget cuts are forcing/hurrying universities to look into new ways of “delivering content.”

The biggest challenge now, Dr. Chaloux said, reiterating what I had just heard from Dr. Rubin, is that preparation for college is lacking. We must do a better job attacking the disastrous completion rate: 27% of public institution students finish college in four years; the number is 48% in private institutions.

And a signal pointing to the pertinence of online learning among another specific population: There are more than 40 million working adults who did not finish college and are still “out there” –with a million more coming on every year.  As great as our higher-ed system is, we need to do better and accept the need for change and the need to accommodate to this growing swath of our society.

We need to recognize, said Sue Day-Perroots, Dean of Extended Learning at West Virginia University, and another member of the panel, that “the 21st century learner needs new skills…we live in a new era that requires a new kind of college education…We live in an information society, not an industrial society.” Online learning is one of the routes to explore seriously with our older, “nontraditional” cadre.

We also need to focus on the cumulative harm of the “poor transitions” in the K-16 trajectory – there are many along the way. We are good at adding but not so good at dropping programs. And what does it say about a culture that now has more than 100 colleges and universities in the “$50K Club” – tuition and room and board hovering at or over $50,000 a year. We need to pay more attention to helping first-generation, low income, and underserved students. Again, online learning has possibilities here.

At 2010: A Learning Systems Odyssey, we heard how three huge state University systems – Michigan, Minnesota and Florida – took different paths toward adapting new Learning Management Systems for their students. From Web CT to Sakai to Moodle, the process was evolutionary, complex and contingent upon the individual campus culture; there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to LMS.

The major point made by all three speakers was that “faculty recommendation and buy-in” had to be the “number one” criterion. Pedagogical needs must drive the technology which, in turn, must be stringently evaluated according to its ability to further the mission of the university and align with future institutional plans. The final proof-test, said Fedro S. Zazueta of the University of Florida, must be that the LMS, whatever brand, be utilized “to change the culture and conduct of the university for the better, otherwise it is not worth the time and considerable expense.”

And in terms of the future –the panel spoke of efforts going beyond LMS and CMS. Ann Hill-Duin at Minnesota referred to the hard work of their LMS Futures Commiittee [which resonates very nicely with our newly-established MSU Provost’s Online Program Development Team]. Minnesota’s faculty are exploring Web 2.0, collaborative efforts, and setting up “fringe cases” in a salutary way. The wave of their future is starting now. Dr. Hill-Duin referred with pride to open content, an open journals system, and an undergraduate writing class actually creating and publishing its own journal on the Web [an idea I will enthusiastically “appropriate” for my spring 2011 semester honors seminar in the creative process.]

“In the next five years,” declared Steve Fireng, CEO of Embanet-Compass Knowledge Group, in a press release distributed at the Sloan Conference Exhibit Hall, “we expect nearly 4 million new online learners will come into this market.” There is a lot of entrepreneurial rhetoric accompanying all the edgy technology out there. As teachers, we need to think hard about how it applies to us — and how we are going to adapt to it intelligently.

Settling into my seat on the plane to Newark, I closed my eyes, as the balmy weather and palm tree-dotted land dropped away…and reflected upon this whirlwind sojourn. It is not as simple, I thought, as conceding that the old models are broken.  Providing harrowing dropout and noncompletion evidence does not mean that we have to discard customary methodology and overhaul all the ways we  reach and teach our students.

It should be more about reaching those we have not yet reached when the traditional (“residential”) model does not pertain. Even in a so-called “commuter” school like Montclair State, many of our commuters come from less than ten miles away.

I am only one professor whose mind has been opened considerably by attending my first Sloan Conference.  Now I have to consider more deeply how my University can serve those whom it has not yet served.

Online learning is a powerful contributory remedy to stubborn pedagogical problems that remain present and imminent.

[Grateful acknowledgement to the Montclair State University Office of the Provost and the Office of the Dean of the College of the Arts for registration support and travel funding.]

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>