Massive online courses are not true college classes, say professors who teach them
Apr 08, 2013 (San Bernardino County Sun - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Professors teaching hundreds or thousands of students online has been all the buzz in academic circles, but the professors who teach those courses say they shouldn't be worth college credit.
That's the big finding in a study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The magazine surveyed 103 professors who teach what are known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, in February. The courses are sometimes taken by thousands of students at one time, on subjects ranging from basic English literature courses to engineering.
The courses are popular with legislators and administrators, as a way to stretch college funds at a time when budgets are tight.
Although 86 percent
of the professors surveyed thought the courses could help reduce the cost of a college degree, 72 percent don't believe the courses themselves should count for college credit.
That's not a surprise to Southern California educators.
"I think, in a sense, that people are conflating MOOCs with online education," said Jodie B. Ullman, who leads the faculty senate at Cal State San Bernardino. "There are very high-quality, high-level online education (programs) that are very successful. The MOOCs, not so much. "
The problem, she said, is the scale.
"There's too many students and you're not seeing the interaction between faculty and students," Ullman said.
"Administrators seem to think that education is delivered like a pizza," said Greg Meyer, who teaches environmental science at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. "If you're a good teacher, every student is a different person with different needs and they learn in different ways. "
But the programs do have their supporters.
"All new technologies challenge the way we do things," said David Jordan, a law professor and L.A. Mission College who helped spearhead the campus' online program. He has been teaching online since 1997.
"The MOOCs challenge the idea that the only way to learn is sitting in a classroom. Many times, sitting in a classroom, listening to a professor and daydreaming, is a lot less effective than a MOOC, where you have to actively listen and engage with the materials. "
Jordan doesn't believe every class or discipline benefits from the format, however.
"It has a place," he said. "The best place for a MOOC is math, science or engineering," with concrete answers and student evaluations with multiple-choice tests.
But classes that require more individualized attention require a smaller-scale teaching environment.
"A MOOC, for my law program, could be three weeks in which it covers the system of the United States government and court system" to get students up to speed on the basics faster. "It's similar to open education on the Internet. It would help them, yes, but would it let them test out of anything No. "
Larry Press, a professor of information systems at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, counts himself among those who are enthusiastic about MOOCS. For one thing, he said, they are finally leading to some genuine innovation in terms of how online education is delivered.
"What they've done so far with the Internet is they've taken old face-to-face classrooms and textbooks and tried to duplicate that
online," he said, referring to the time before massive online courses. Press likens the approach to the infancy of the motion-picture industry, when movie cameras were simply placed in front of stage plays.
"Until now, online education has put old wine in a new bottle," he said. "But now we're starting to put some new wine into that new bottle."
Press points to MOOC creators eschewing the traditional 50-minute lecture approach in favor of an experience that is broken up into segments. A MOOCS class might offer a five or six-minute lecture, followed by a short video, followed by an online quiz -- all while allowing students to interact via social-networking technologies.
Still, not everyone is on board just yet.
"It really doesn't surprise me that the majority of professors would say 'no, this really wasn't intended to be a college course; this was intended to be a mechanism for self-study,'" said James Monaghan, assistant vice-president for academic technologies and distributed computing at Cal State San Bernardino.
He sees the courses working best when supplemented with smaller, hands-on classes.
"The MOOC that enrolls 10,000 people really isn't intended to be a replacement for traditional college courses," Monaghan said.
Online education is used as a supplement to traditional classroom education at the University of Redlands.
"The University of Redlands offers courses taught in the 'hybrid' format, where there is a blend of in-class and online instruction," Karen Bergh, the university's Director of Public Relations. "We do not currently have plans to offer MOOCS. "
Mechanical engineering student Johnathan Jianu has taken both purely online and hybrid classes at Cal Poly Pomona, albeit with only about 70 fellow students.
"I actually liked the experience online," he said. "It was kind of at your own pace, and if there was something I wasn't getting in the lecture, I could just open another tab (in a Web browser), and there was Google right there. "
At the moment, MOOCs lack a means for professors to really know what students are getting out of their courses, according to Shanthi Srinivas, associate vice president for Academic Planning, Policy and Faculty Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona.
"I think the whole environment is fairly new; it's almost developing as we speak," she said. "I think it's a question of demonstration of student learning. If they are in your class, and you're interacting with them, it's more readily accessible to see if students have achieved the learning goals of your course. "
Although California's public universities have gotten a bit of budgetary relief with the passage of Proposition 30 last November, the need to teach ever-more students with the same or fewer professors will likely keep online education on the minds of administrators and legislators.
On Feb. 21, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced SB520, which would allow private online education vendors to offer online versions of difficult-to-get-into classes that would be worth college credit at the University of California, California State University or from California Community Colleges.
"This is an evolving entity and it's certainly going to be something that's part of the conversation," Srinivas said. "But how it will, and what form it will take, is not clear." Others, though, are more skeptical.
"I think it's an experiment that they're going to pull back from," Ullman said. "I think this is not at all the way that future online courses are going to go. " Those old correspondence courses, those went out the window, and these are the same deal. "
"I think it's going to happen because I think the administrators are not so much interested in education," Meyer said. "Do I think it's good for education The answer is no. "
Jianu, a former student body president, appreciates why officials are fans of online education, but says they can serve students' needs as well.
"I know the CSU's doing a huge push to not only cut costs but reach more people," he said. "I'm not necessarily in favor of a giant classroom size with 1,000 people to one professor, but this online experience will let students learn at their own pace. "
Staff Writer Robert Kuznia contributed to this story.
Reach Beau via email, call him at 909-386-3826, or find him on Twitter @InlandEd.
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