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Professors shouldn't be afraid of online learning (essay)

Inside Higher Ed’s survey about faculty views of online education is on point. Since I had participated by filling out the survey, I was curious about its findings. My interest surged after reading the related article by Steve Kolowich -- who noted that for professors “the rise of online education excites them more than it frightens them.” According to the survey’s composite data, I fit the profile of Academic Everyman. So, to flesh out the statistical bones, here are some observations by an archetypal Old Prof who wonders as he wanders through the new terrain of distance learning.        

I do wonder why so many colleagues fear or avoid online education.  It’s established, expanding, and improving – and is an undeniable part of college teaching and learning. At a flagship state university, online education is less of a threat to job security than is the administrative penchant to hire adjuncts at a relatively low salary to teach traditional courses. Learning how to teach online probably would be one of the best steps a professor could take to assure viability in the 21st century. The most dysfunctional response by a professor today would be to dismiss or ignore both the technology and the social consequences online learning has.

Online education is neither simple nor sinister: I am not so much low tech as slow tech -- and found that being ready to teach an online course takes a long time.  But the time lapse falls into two markedly different phases.  To convert a graduate course I had taught in “traditional mode” for many years, last September I sought out my campus’s director of distance learning programs offered by the university library and met with her and the DL staff for a long series of work sessions and carefully monitored progress reports.   At each juncture the DL staff patiently yet firmly showed me why and how it was important to understand the logic and logistics of course preparation and presentation.  One had to have course materials – including syllabus, weekly content, discussion topics, assignments, and links to materials – clearly in place before starting to teach.

What I found was that the more one learned about the format and understood the strengths and limits of the online technology, the more interesting and effective teaching and learning would be. Best of all, the DL professionals showed me how I could use imaginatively and effectively historical photographs, old newsreels, and archival documents as visual sources that animated the teaching and learning.  They also drove home the need to gain copyright permissions and make technical arrangements to “stream” historical films, and helped me do both.  In sum, they combined their stern warnings with interest and assistance.  The happy result was that by November my course materials had met their standards – and I had their blessings to proceed to the second, sluice gate: official approval of my DL course by the university’s faculty

The official approval process was markedly different from the course preparation experience.  It combined the slow pace of regular course proposal with added delays in deliberations because it was a Distance Learning course, especially at the higher levels of universitywide review. Approval and encouragement came promptly from my department and our college curriculum committee and from my dean – all of whom had an interest in having our college venture into online courses – and who understood that time was of the essence if an online course were to be available soon to students. However, at the next levels, the Senate committee reviews involved little in the way of acquiring skills or rethinking teaching design or course substance.  It was characterized by objections or clarifications about relatively small details and was marked by long periods of waiting for word of approval to go on to the next step.

After subcommittee  review, the most surprising finding was that in the Senate Council, and the full Faculty Senate, there were obstructionist colleagues.  One professor who was a senator raised objections and routinely voted against DL course proposals  on the grounds that he did not approve of distance learning as part of the university’s curriculums.  The merits of a course topic, contents, proposed presentation, significance of readings and assignments and other substantive matters evidently were not pertinent to his filibusters and dissenting vote. This meant that professors who took initiative to transform existing traditional courses – or create new ones – in online mode faced unreasonable obstacles. One phase promoted thoughtful innovation; the second phase often was filled with delay and distrust

Online education is neither inherently inexpensive nor efficient:  If university officials embrace distance learning as a quick fix to offer courses at low cost to a large number of students, they are mistaken.  Preparation and teaching are labor-intensive. Those “guardians of standards” who are skeptical about the quality of a proposed online course struck me as wrongheaded given that there is great variance in quality among traditional courses. There may well be a latent function of fear operating here – namely, some professors are worried that their traditional courses may ultimately be in jeopardy with the proliferation of large enrollment online courses.  I doubt this is a widespread or warranted fear among tenured professors.  A more rational concern would be that one’s failure to be able or willing to incorporate online learning in blended form with “real” courses would have declining appeal both to prospective students and to deans and  provosts.  

Budget-minded provosts and deans may dream of online courses as a lucrative source of new revenue streams.  However, there is no guarantee that creating an online course or program is inexpensive.  Nor is there any certainty that a university will lower the tuition price – even if the online course cost were eventually to cost less than a “traditional course.”  All the variables of effectiveness, efficiency, cost and price are subject to the same complexities, adjustments, and vacillations of any higher education program offering.

Established universities would be wise to heed the innovations taking place in all sectors of postsecondary education.  I have had the opportunity for conversations with Jorge Klor de Alva, who has held academic leadership positions with the University of Phoenix as its president and, now, as president of  its affiliated Nexus Research and Policy Center.  He warrants the attention of traditional universities because prior to joining University of Phoenix, he was a tenured professor both at UC Berkeley and at Princeton.  In short, he has the experience to talk about both traditional and for-profit higher education in their respective responses to how pedagogy has changed with technological innovations. Most surprising to me was to learn how much attention and seriousness the University of Phoenix pours into the creation and evaluation of its online courses.  Its faculty and staff's attention to detail in working with instructors, designing courses, monitoring student participation and learning have been a source of innovation that often was underappreciated by traditional colleges.

Online education makes history by being part of higher education’s history: Online education may be new, especially in such particulars as Internet technology.  But what the luddite faculty opponents ought to recognize is that online education is merely the latest in a long succession of teaching innovations that are fueled by a combination of technological and social changes.  In other words, online education is very much part of higher education’s heritage:

New teaching media have long attracted outstanding scholars. For example, several years ago my wife came across a packet of letters in a secondhand store in Washington, D.C.   She gave them to me because the recipient was a professor.  It turns out that the packet contained the exchanges and comments of a correspondence course from 1891.  Most spectacular was our finding that the professor reading and grading the correspondence examination essays was Richard Ely – at that time a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, who soon would join the University of Wisconsin, where he would lead one of the most influential economics departments of all time.  He was no less than a founder and president of the American Economic Association.

To discover that Ely found time to teach in a new format and took seriously the evaluation of student correspondence courses was a revelation.  It showed that more than a century ago, a famous professor took the plunge to participate enthusiastically in an innovative format for college level teaching and learning.  It would be comparable today to having the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman responding individually to an undergraduate’s e-mails as part of Krugman’s online course.

Between the end posts of Richard Ely teaching correspondence courses in 1891 and a distinguished professor offering online courses in 2012, there is a rich heritage of top-flight professors who embrace new media as a way of reaching extended student audiences.  Today much of the publicity in higher education involves the role of Stanford, Harvard and MIT venturing into “massively open online courses.” 

Often overlooked is that this is a variation on a familiar theme in higher education. In 1956 ABC devoted two hours of Sunday afternoon programming to a series produced by Bell Laboratories Science Series that featured as host professor Frank Baxter of the University of Southern California, cast in the role of “Dr. Research.” The one-hour shows included “Our Mister Sun” about solar energy, fuel, and food; and a show about blood and the circulatory system, “Hemo the Magnificent.” Fifteen years later, PBS attracted a loyal, large national audience in 1969-70 when it broadcast each Sunday evening an episode of rofessor Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation – a series so popular that it compelled viewers to look forward to the television equivalent of western civ, instead of watching sitcoms and professional sports shows offered by the major networks.

Implications for established higher education: The Inside Higher Ed survey reinforces the point that online education persists as one of many strands that coexist in higher education.  Last week, for example, a sub-theme about the forced resignation of the president of the University of Virginia evidently was the Board of Visitors’ concern that new innovations such as online courses were being ignored in favor of saving classics. 

The problem with such characterizations is that they set up false dichotomies – such as the wrongheaded belief that classics are at odds with online learning. My own experience is that this is not the case.  For example, the skilled, patient director of distance learning programs who made my immersion into online education both effective and enjoyable brings to her role an academic background in information science – and,  ahem, in classics!  I fortuitously discovered this fruitful combination by the motto at the bottom of her e-mails: “Fluctuat nec mergitur” – “She is tossed by the waves, but is not drowned.”  

That’s not a bad motto for dealing with innovation and flux in our teaching and learning. It leads me to suggest that for higher education in the 21st century, consideration of online education -- plus lectures, seminars, tutorials, independent studies, internships, field work, all of which coexist and cross-fertilize one another without eliminating any one format  -- brings to mind the Latin motto of Claremont Graduate University : “multi lumina, lux una” -- “many lamps, one light...”

John Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky.  He is author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

The Pulse: Managing Your Social Media Portfolio

In this month's edition of The Pulse podcast, Rod Murray discusses how to manage your social media portfolio with the help of "If This Then That," as well as Apple's new podcast app. The Pulse is Inside Higher Ed's monthly technology podcast, produced by Murray, executive director of the office of academic technology at University of the Sciences. Find out more about The Pulse here.

Survey: iPad adoption sluggish but e-textbooks booming

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Apple iPads are gradually catching up to their hype on four-year campuses; e-textbooks make inroads as well.

Essay on the value of cell phones in class

When I started teaching writing at City College in 2002, I took a poll and every one of my students had a cell phone. I told them that I didn’t have one. It was meant to be a humanizing detail, an icebreaker. I explained how I thought that phones that you carry with you were invasive and distracting and thus dangerous. I should have, but didn’t, ask them to write about the topic.

Instead, I took advantage of the good feelings in the room as an opportunity to outline my cell phone policy, strictly enforced for years: No cell phones in class, ever. If I saw one out or heard a ring, I would ask the student to leave. I wanted to make the point that while students are in class, or doing anything for that matter, they should give the task at hand their undivided attention. It should be noted that there was no equivalent policy against doodling, staring out the window (in the rare instances when there was one), or staring at a classmate’s tight clothes.

In 2006, after my first child was born, I was able to resist getting a cell phone, to the amusement and frustration of my friends and family for another two years. Finally, when my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was commuting twice a week 90 miles upstate to teach, I came home one day to find a pay-by-the-minute phone activated for me. For a year and a half, I used the phone only when necessary (it was amazing how difficult it had become to make plans with someone — "We’ll meet around eight, somewhere downtown; I’ll text you the exact time and place around then. Oh right, you still don’t have a cell phone"). I’d show off my bulky, bare-bones phone to classes, so they could have a laugh at how primitive it was at the beginning of the semester, and then I’d still drop the hammer on my strict cell phone policy.

But then, all of the sudden, something changed in me, I finally wanted a decent cell phone. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted an iPhone. It was just that I wanted a phone that I could do things with, like kill smug pigs with exploding birds or find out where the traffic was in Queens without waiting until the radio’s report on the 8s or 1s of the hour. So I bought a relatively cheap smartphone.

I didn’t tell my students, nor did I dare, for fear of setting a bad example, pull it out in their presence. But within a week, the students must have somehow sensed something different in me. Requests never made before began popping up. During an open-book reading test, a student asked if he could use a downloaded version of the book on his phone. All right, I told him. A few days later, in a different class, as I was putting an assignment’s instructions on the board, a student asked if he could take out a cell phone to snap a photo of the instructions instead of writing them down. Why not?

Now I start every semester teaching the difference between the register of socializing and academic English by having students translate their informal, acronym-filled text communiqués into formal academic prose. They get it instantly. "LMAO" gets changed to "I find that funny." "OMG shes such a skank" becomes "Wow, she is dirty." The longer and more incomprehensible the message, the more I learn. How else would I have known that "whip" can mean car or that "white boys" may refer to rolling papers?

All of these experiences had only suggested to me that cell phones might be useful as educational tools to a very limited extent. For some time, I continued to believe that by and large they still didn’t belong in the classroom. Until recently, that is. A few months back, I was listening to a radio program about Tony Schwartz, a New York field-recording specialist, whose work dates back to the 1950s. I was in the car, stopped at a light, and without a pen to write down information about an upcoming event on Schwartz, I pulled out my phone and, in an instant, recorded a voice memo. Later, after listening to the voice memo, I was reminded that I wanted to record a poem I had been working on. I printed out a draft, and instead of opening my laptop, I took out the phone.

Light bulb!

Perhaps the most frustrating part of teaching writing is reading student papers that are filled with myriad, obvious anacoluthons. The mistakes themselves are not what frustrate. Instead, it’s how these mistakes suggest the students didn’t even bother to read their own work even once before handing it in; it’s how the students have ignored the most oft-repeated proofreading advice given by writing instructors of all levels (and one I repeat with each assignment): read it aloud before you hand it in. But now, it all of the sudden occurred to me, as I was sitting there with the printed poem and the cell phone, I can make them do this. I can make them read their work out loud and demonstrate this by having them upload the file online. I can make them do this all before they hand in a final draft of a paper.

Last semester teaching developmental writing at Queensborough Community College, I gave my students explicit instructions on how to record files of themselves reading their papers, both on their phones and in the computer lab. I also demonstrated for them how fast they should read, making a point to demonstrate with a document that had errors. I would interrupt my deliberate cadence on the error, which from the snickers I could tell they’d all heard too, asking for suggestions on correcting the mistake. After correcting the mistakes, I would start my recording again until I did a reading that didn’t have any writing mistakes (as opposed to reading mistakes, which I say are fine as long as they are corrected with a rereading).

The student responses to these assignments have been mostly positive. However, some students struggle with technology already, and they are none too eager to have to use it some more. Others resent having to do more work than they think they are supposed to do for a writing assignment. A fair amount, though, have grown to appreciate how much this technique helps them -- and not only in finding grammatical mistakes. More than one student has reported that they noticed their arguments or narratives don’t make sense when they read them out loud. My own sense is that the student progress made this semester has exceeded the student progress of previous semesters.

I should say the process isn’t a panacea. One student, who has explained in other writing projects that she is at college because her parents are forbidding her to go cosmetology school, uploads files that sound like an LP sped up to 45 rpm. I reply to her postings, asking her to slow down her reading. She has slowed down some, but not completely. Regardless, she has done the work, and while at the beginning of the semester I could barely understand one of her sentences, now she is writing papers in which there are still numbers of run-ons sentences, but clear sentences.

Another student, who is registered with our SSD (Services for Students with Disabilities) office, writes almost exclusively in simple sentences. If I assign a two-page paper, maybe I’ll get two complex sentences from him. When I listen to his readings, his voice is flat and mechanical. There were very few mistakes in his sentences to begin with. My challenge of helping him learn how to subordinate and coordinate thoughts has not been accomplished with these recording assignments. Many students have become competent and confident writers.

I have started grading the papers while listening to the students’ readings of them. When the students read at deliberate pace, I have more than enough time to highlight mistakes and begin my comments in the margins. When the information from the student is clear and cogent, I put a check next to the sentences. Again, my sense is I have never gone through so many papers giving almost nothing but checks. At least three times this semester, I’ve written on a student paper, "this is one of the best papers I have ever read in this class." I can’t remember writing that once before in my two years at Queensborough.

Recently a colleague at Queensborough stopped by my office to chat. He mentioned he had to ask someone to leave his class that day because she was using her cell phone during class. He knows of my strict cell phone policies of the past. “It just drives you crazy,” I sympathized with him.

He then noticed the headphones on my desk. “What are you listening to?” he asked. “Student papers,” I told him. I explained the project and how I was encouraging students to use their cell phones to make the recordings. “I’ve finally surrendered,” I offered, apologizing for abandoning the no-cell-phone-ever hardliners.

The generous interlocutor my colleague is, he mused, “I guess you’re right, we have to find a way to make them useful in class.” That wasn’t what I was thinking or intending, but there you go.

Jed Shahar is assistant professor in the Basic Education Skills Department of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

Push for Wireless Access at Rural Colleges

A group of companies and higher ed groups on Tuesday announced a project aimed at expanding Internet capabilities at rural colleges and universities across the country. The project, called AIR.U., would increase the broadband available to those institutions and their neighbors by harnessing the unused frequencies, called "white space," of defunct television channels. The partners in the deal, which include Microsoft, Google, the New America Foundation and the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (among many others), are billing the project as an altruistic effort to "[upgrade] broadband offerings in those communities that, because of their educational mission, have greater than average demand but often, because of their rural or small town location, have below average broadband." The first networks are expected to come online early next year.

Disruption is an excuse for politically motivated changes (essay)

Recent events at the University of Virginia following the decision of the institution's governing board to remove its president after only two years in office have brought to light some questionable claims that have been animating educational reformers lately.

In a statement justifying the Board of Visitors’ decision, the Board’s rector, Helen Dragas, asserted that U.Va.’s president, Terry Sullivan, was unwilling to make the kinds of changes necessary at a time when universities like Virginia are facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas believes, “is simply moving too fast.”

Dragas’s comments echo those of many reformers who believe that new technologies are producing “disruptive innovation,” forcing universities, which are supposedly conservative by nature and controlled by faculty who are invested in outmoded ways of doing things, to transform themselves to meet the needs of the 21st century.

The claim behind this is, quite simply, that new technologies have alone made it possible to transcend the “traditional” campus model. Whether through new learning technology on campus or through distant online education, technology will cut costs, improve access, and completely reframe the foundation of the American academy: tenure, shared governance, and the centrality of brick-and-mortar classrooms and flesh-and-blood faculty.

The problem with this refrain is that it ignores the importance of ideas and politics. As Mark Blyth of Johns Hopkins has written, disruptive innovation is not just a technological act, but one in which new contexts enable people with pre-existing ideas for reform to push their pre-existing agenda. In short, ideas can be used to determine what gets defined as a crisis and what gets defined as the appropriate solution.

In this case, the constant iteration of “disruptive innovation” provides an aura of inevitability to issues that are to be worked out on the ground through politics, on the one hand, and through decisions by specific colleges and universities, on the other hand. There is nothing inevitable about how new technology is used, what its goals are, and who will control it: these are all matters that some one -- or some group -- will decide.

The refrain of disruption is misleading. It suggests that the “traditional” college is on its last legs, when this is far from being the case. In fact, there is nothing inherently disruptive about new technologies. At their best, as the New York Times's David Brooks rightly notes, new technologies can improve colleges by allowing teachers to be more effective within classrooms.

At their worst, new technologies will be used to replace the human dimension of education with machines. But those are choices that we, as citizens, policy makers, and members of the academy are free to make. Change may be inevitable, but the direction and meaning of change are not.

For decades critics of higher education have sought to limit the centrality of the liberal arts -- and the humanities in particular -- in the American college curriculum. For decades, critics of higher education have sought to eliminate tenure and reduce shared governance to make universities more accountable to managers. For decades, critics have sought to rely on market-based ideas both to fund universities and to determine which programs are worth funding. None of these criticisms relied on new technologies. They were present in the 1970s and 1980s.

What we are really seeing is not necessarily a moment of disruptive change.

Rather, those who are already hostile to the academy are invoking the idea of disruption to convince the rest of us that the changes they desire are inevitable.

The new technologies are an excuse; the reality is that many of the changes being imposed on universities across America -- and exposed in the debates at the University of Virginia -- are not about technology and disruptive innovation but about those who have a particular vision of American higher education and want to see it happen.

In short, it’s about politics and values, and there’s nothing inevitable about those.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2004.

 

Is an electronic tenure portfolio right for you? (essay)

While it may go against the grain for faculty members who aren't digital natives, Paula Dagnon and Karen Hoelscher explain how to find out whether creating an electronic portfolio of your work is right for you.

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Royal Society wants Britain to see equal value in datasets and journal articles

Section: 
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Britain's Royal Society wants the government and universities to give equal stature to datasets and to publications.

University presses debate how to reconcile with libraries in wake of Georgia State copyright battle

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University press directors bemoan ruling in Georgia State copyright case, discuss how to make up with librarians and curb unlicensed copying outside the courts.

Gates Grants for 'Breakthrough Learning Models'

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced $9 million in grants for "breakthrough learning models" in higher education:

The awards include:

  • $3.3 million to EDUCAUSE for four winners of the Next Generation Learning Challenges' latest RFP. These winners include state systems, four-year and two-year programs, and all have signed up to deliver significant improvements in completion at scale, at affordable tuition rates.
  • $3 million to MyCollege Foundation to establish a nonprofit college that will blend adaptive online learning solutions with other student services.
  • $1 million to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop and offer a new, free prototype computer science online course through edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard, and partner with a postsecondary institution that targets low-income young adults to experiment with use of the course in a "flipped classroom."
  • $1 million to the Research Foundation of the City University of New York to support the launch of the New Community College (NCC) at CUNY.
  • $500,000 to University of the People to support the pursuit of accreditation.
  • $450,000 to the League for Innovation in the Community College to develop and pilot a national consortium of leading online two- and four-year colleges that will help increase seat capacity in the community college system and support more low-income young adults in attaining a postsecondary credential. The consortium will initially include Coastline Community College (CA), the University of Massachusetts Online, Pennsylvania State World Campus and the University of Illinois-Springfield.

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