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What is online education? What could it be?

What does it mean to "teach" an online course?

This question might be the most serious question facing colleges and universities as they migrate more courses online. It should be of even greater concern as we move some K12 learning online.

When I teach online, I find that students have to write and interact much more than they might in a traditional "face-to-face" course. In a classroom, it is easy for the quiet student to say only a few words. Even the best teacher can call on students only so many times. I prefer groups with lots of discussion, but those can be dominated by a few students.

Online, when carefully structured and moderated, can engage more students. It is also easier to determine who is or is not comprehending some topics. At the same time, you must balance moderating against letting students feel like the online space is theirs. It is easy for a teacher to dominate a classroom, real or virtual.

Yet, if there are too many or too few students, the online class becomes something else. With 30 or more students in an online class, I find that it drifts towards automation and self-directed study. Some schools place 50 or more students in online courses, which are then nothing more than giant lecture halls placed online.

There is a value to the lecture model, though, depending on the course and its purpose.

We need to admit that online education often fails to rise more than a step or two above computer based training (CBT). Yet, I am uncertain that this is inherently a failure. What if the CBT model is good enough for some self-motivated students? What if the model helps students lacking basic skills?

Many in higher education, including me, like to talk about the importance of critical thinking and creativity in our classrooms. But, is education really reaching those aspirations? My experiences as a student tended toward task and information memorization. Some basic subjects aren't going to be creative or critical, even if they could be or should be.

Math courses? I believe I have learned more with books than in most math classes. Math is about practice. We might not like to work through pages and pages of problems, but I do believe that helps a student. There are some materials that are best memorized and practiced. When anyone tells me that rote memorization isn't learning, I point to music. When we learn to play an instrument, we do practice skills for hours on end. Basic math skills seem analogous to learning scales: you need the basics for later creative tasks.

For some courses, maybe the lectures are online for asynchronous viewing and the discussions are interactive. There are limitless variations that could be adopted, tailoring the online space to the particular subject and student population.

The appearance of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) raises these pedagogical questions: how do you "teach" 500, 1000, or 100,000 students in a course? It can be done, if the instructor and teaching assistants serve more as guides and mentors to help students learn from each other.

I cannot grade and carefully analyze 500 papers a week. With 100,000 students, individual grading and feedback becomes impossible. So, what does this mean for the model?

Dual-Track Enrollment

My first suggestion is to allow anyone to enroll in a class, while not everyone will pay fees to receive grades and take any exams.

Yes, I am suggesting we offer feedback on a "fee per assignment" or "fee per exam" basis. I know that seems sacrilegious, but why not let anyone observe and audit a class online? If anyone can listen to any lecture, that seems wonderful to me. Someone could sit through the same class two or three times, deciding when he or she wanted to start paying for feedback and units of credit. Personally, I'm not against allowing someone to take a class several times, paying for some assignments during one section and for the others in future sections.

Such an approach recognizes that online education can allow students to work around their lives. This model also values "mastery" over some rigid calendar. If you need two or three chances to pass a course, who cares? I don't think we should worry about someone wanting to understand a topic thoroughly. I'd even allow someone who has passed a course to attend future sessions or to participate as a mentor — but he or she wouldn't be allowed to submit new assignments or take exams already passed.

It might be necessary to cap the number of paying students, just to maintain a reasonable workload for instructors and their assistants. The more assistants, the more students we might be able to serve with quality feedback and examinations.

Testing Online

When you have 30 or fewer students, essays and papers are possible. When you have 100 or more students, you end up embracing the "ScanTron" multiple choice model. I'm not sure there is a good alternative when courses are overenrolled. I'm not a fan of timed, multiple choice exams, and online there will be some security problems. That's why any exams for credit might have to be offered in testing centers. (We cannot trust people with online examinations. Sorry, but online testing seems problematic.)

Some emerging online programs are using test centers already for certification and college credit exams. I would assume one test at a center would be sufficient to guarantee students are truly learning and gaining the knowledge required. No, such tests will not be great pedagogically — but they would be serving a simple purpose: answering the question, "Is this the person who completed the course?"

Most of the grades earned in my courses come from online discussion and papers, not tests. I'm merely suggesting we would need some manner of testing occasionally. We cannot award degrees or certificates without some evidence that the student is prepared.

Questions Remain

I am involved in the planning and development of a MOOC academy. What questions should I be asking? What concerns would you have? I have many questions and concerns, but I also see the potential to reach many people as extremely important.

With hundreds or thousands of students, any fees could be minimal. It might be possible to rely on indirect funding, for example. How should a MOOC be funded? Is it still an "open" course if you charge a few dollars? If courses are free, but not feedback and testing, will that support the teachers and other necessary staff?

Offer your opinions and let me know what you would expect of an online academy.

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