Educating Minds Online

I am not fundamentally opposed to online higher education, particularly for courses that are not in students’ major, where explicit knowledge is high and tacit knowledge is low, serving students in remote locations, or similar rationale. Yet it seems, whether we like it or not, that higher education is heading towards a two-tier higher education system: online for those with less financial resources, and face-to-face for those with greater financial resources. This is driven in large part by the difficulty of improving the teaching productivity and effectiveness under present conditions.

Absent any major change in pedagogy and teacher qualifications, we could be headed in directions that do not yield he intended outcome: better educated students. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Educating Minds Online” (8 December 2014), speaks highly of a book written by Michelle Miller that guides faculty towards greater success in online education, particularly for public universities that serve a wide geographic region. My concern is narrow and pertains to the increased use of quizzes to demonstrate “mastery” of a subject. Below is an excerpt from the article, followed by my commentary:

“‘In many traditional courses you also can’t do things like offer repeated quiz attempts with different questions, or adapt the quiz to the topics that individual students are having the most trouble with.'”

Generally, students don’t like quizzes. So, will more quizzes actually lead to “mastery,” or does it present to students more annoying wickets that they must pass through in order to earn a passing grade and receive course credits on the way to their ultimate objective: graduation? It seems likely that students will cheat in order to progress through online courses that contain many quizzes and tests and which they have little interest in.

“Miller is referring there to the well-established ‘testing effect,’ which describes the learning boost that comes when students are required to make frequent efforts to draw material from their memory and use it in different contexts. As many researchers have argued, the power of the testing effect is not limited to testing or quizzing: Any time we ask students to recall and work with information—rather than simply presenting it to them for review or study—we are strengthening their learning.”

I don’t disagree that the testing effect is well-established. However, if students are asked to recall information that is largely disconnected from the “real world” (i.e. lacking practical application) then it seems likely that the impact of the testing effect will be short-term. Isn’t higher education intended to have positive effects on students’ work and life for the long term? I teach for the long-term, not the short-term.

“The same is true, Miller noted, ‘for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice.'”

The words: “we can… present them as many times as we want” come across to me as: “I’m the teacher and I am going to force you to master the subject through frequent quizzes and other activities even if you do not like the subject and cannot intellectually or emotionally connect to it.” What does the student want? Probably something along these lines: What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education. Online education allows administrators to tie “student success” (grades) to teacher evaluation in ways that may not reflect actual learning or effective pedagogy for recall of information years after the course was taken.

“‘In a way,’ she added, ‘this approach to technology is an extension of the idea that students should spend more time actually performing the skills we want them to master and less time listening to other people talking about the skills we want them to master. This mind-set is one that prevails among the best teachers, and it’s one I think more of us are coming around to.'”

That depends. Students will dislike time spent (wasted) performing skills that teachers want them to master that lacks relevancy and connection to the real world. Overall, this seems to me like an effort to continue traditional ways of teaching, aided by technology, rather than completely re-thinking how we teach and the skills and capabilities of the people hired to teach. Students like ways of teaching that focus on learning, not testing and other activities that professors deem necessary, and they value professors with significant real-world work experience.

Lastly, it should be obvious to every teacher that “mastery” of a subject cannot be achieved by taking a course for 14 weeks, just as mastery of a musical instrument cannot be achieved by taking music lessons twice a week for 14 weeks. Effortful practice in the classroom will take students only so far. To really master a subject, they must engage in effortful practice in the real world. And, the reality is they will likely do this for no more than 10 percent of the subjects they encounter as undergraduate students – most of which will be in their major area of study.

I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts.

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