I’m a stalwart advocate of online education and have been since the moment I began building my first class back in 2011. But there are a couple of things that consistently keep me up at night when it comes to online education. Mostly, I worry about the ways the systems and processes we’ve built up around online learning function to degrade instructors and students.
A case in point is the so-called master model of online course development. Distinct from MOOCs, which tend to be free and explicitly noninteractive (at least in terms of faculty-student interaction), an online “master” course is a credit-based course designed by a single professor with the express intention of handing it off to a cadre of underpaid instructional professionals. The professor may or may not actively participate in the course but remains listed as its nominal lead instructor, even across multiple sections of the course. The subalterns who actually interact with the students have little to no say in shaping course content and essentially function as graders and discussion facilitators, despite the fact that many have Ph.D.s.
On one level, the master course idea is not new. Large universities have long offered some form of “canned” class. Never ideal, canned classes often existed as laboratories in which teaching assistants could learn the ropes, albeit in an ill-advised sink-or-swim fashion.
The master class model, though, isn’t designed to teach grad students how to teach. Nor is it designed to mimic master classes in which budding musicians are given the opportunity to touch the hem of a musical luminary. It is a model designed, first and foremost, to scale instruction to reduce costs. Adjuncts and “academic associates” (who make as little as half of what adjuncts make) are cheaper than tenure-track faculty and, because they have no creative authority, will make fewer demands on an institution’s instructional design team.
If a system’s design reflects the values of its creators, what does the master course model of online course development signal about our values? Oriented around a scale imperative, the master course model seems to prioritize revenue and cost-effectiveness over everything else. It’s also repressive. Investing a single faculty member with the authority to dictate how other teaching professionals engage students diminishes or dismisses entirely the professional dignity of non-tenure-track instructional personnel.
From the previous paragraphs, you may imagine that I think master classes are a terrible idea. And I do … in their current configuration. But can we reappropriate the model and orient it around a different set of values?
A community approach to online course development, where a community of faculty collaborate to design an online course, might be a way to reframe the master course model away from its authoritarian roots toward something that nurtures intellectual exchange, pedagogical innovation and professional solidarity.
A collaborative approach to online course development can occasion intellectual and pedagogical growth and produce richer experiences for online students. When faculty work together to identify learning outcomes, design assignments and produce content, they consider different ideas, learn new ways of thinking and encounter new teaching strategies. The most rewarding experience I’ve had as an instructor came when I worked with colleagues to co-design the required freshman seminar course at Bethel College in Kansas.
After lots of really interesting conversation, each member of the design team taught a section of the course using the same texts and assignments. It would be an understatement to say that the texts stretched me intellectually (none were from my field). The experience also stretched me pedagogically because there was such professional diversity around the table. I talked about teaching with professors of nursing, English, physics, theology, music and psychology, each of whom possessed distinct disciplinary, theoretical and pedagogical inclinations. As a new assistant professor who hadn’t engaged in much intentional talk about teaching, this experience was, to use a clinical term, awesome.
In addition to being intellectually stimulating, this type of collaboration can reinvigorate a faculty member’s investment in the curriculum and nurture a sense of solidarity. At larger, research-oriented institutions, it’s not uncommon for tenure-track faculty to lose touch with the department’s foundational 101 courses, which are often taught by adjuncts and grad students. This is especially true for online 101 courses.
Yet these courses often serve as important pathways to the major and are crucial to a department’s general education outreach. While it doesn’t make sense to develop every online course in community, the broad, nonspecialized nature of foundational courses invites co-development. In these courses students can explore and begin to make connections between different ideas and ways of thinking. Because of this, pooling and showcasing a department’s intellectual and pedagogical breadth -- from full professor to long-term adjunct -- makes real sense.
Research findings point to the positive effects of faculty collaboration. Strong collaboration has been shown to increase teachers’ sense of efficiency and effectiveness. Even collaboration that participants judged to be average or unexceptional was associated with teacher improvement and student achievement. In short, when faculty work together, good things happen for them and their students.
Co-developing an online course that will serve as the foundation for all sections of that course can also foster consistency in the student experience. All students work toward communally agreed-upon learning goals in the same way, leading to more accurate assessment of the efficacy of assignments and enabling the department to more effectively scaffold its curriculum.
Developing courses in community also reduces the likelihood that a student will be disadvantaged by an ill-prepared or inexperienced professor. In instances where instructional duties are assigned late because of a last-minute grant award or unexpected health crisis, a community model immediately links new instructors to a community of practice with comprehensive knowledge of the course. This is especially important for late-addition adjuncts who often struggle in isolation, bereft of professional connections and support.
There are, of course, potential barriers to approaching online course development communally. On the surface, having more faculty working on a single course seems a budgetary extravagance. It also upends conventional modes of distributing faculty load time. How much load time does a faculty member fulfill if she helps develop a course she won’t teach that semester?
On the other hand, it’s worth testing to see if the community model for online course development helps instructors use their time more effectively, avoid pedagogical pitfalls and reduce the number of panicked emails they send to instructional designers. The model may actually maximize instructor time, streamline instruction and reduce the burden on support staff -- all the benefits of the autocratic master course model without, well, the autocracy. The shared sense of community and intellectual exchange at the heart of the co-development model cannot but pay dividends for faculty and students in the long term.
The biggest barrier, however, is faculty members’ common conviction that course development is a solitary endeavor, a presumption that has shaped an educational paradigm around individual authority rather than effective teaching. To be sure, faculty members’ extensive scholarly training and experience makes them experts in their respective fields. But as the proliferation of academic centers and cross-disciplinary working groups indicates, universities have long understood that collaboration is good for thinking and problem solving.
Like cross-disciplinary working groups, team teaching works because it leverages and models for students the value of multiple perspectives and collaboration, two things employers routinely identify as crucial to career readiness. Knowing all this, it seems logical that multiple perspectives and collaboration should be at the heart of how we develop online courses. As Hargreaves and O’Connor note, the need to collaborate is “no longer contentious as a statement of intent,” even though it remains a challenge to implement. But, they add, our students “cannot collaborate unless their teachers do.”
Admittedly, developing online courses in community involves ceding a measure of autonomy in the course development process -- a big ask for some faculty members. But the potential payoffs -- intellectually and pedagogically richer courses and a more engaged, connected faculty -- are significant. What is more, as powerful online hubs exercise more and more influence over what courses universities offer online and how those courses look and feel, co-developing online courses may actually help faculty assert greater control over online education.
Developing online courses in community brings more faculty into conversations about what happens in online spaces. It positions them to both maintain the integrity of the teaching profession and resist the forces that envision online education -- and online students -- primarily in terms of revenue. It forges a system of online education that values fellowship, intellectual exchange, professional and intellectual growth, and working together.