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Bad Pedagogy by Design

One of the serious questions facing proponent of online education is if the current nature of online courses encourages poor teaching methods. The qualities of online courses that contribute to "taking the easy path" exist in some traditional courses. Also, we need to be admit that some instructors are lazy, poorly trained, or truly dedicated to models that others might not endorse.

The issues instructors and critics of online education should consider:

1. Class size. When you have too many students, it is easier to assess students via multiple-choice exams and other forms of memory recall testing. If you rely entirely on assessment of memorized data, but have only a dozen or so students, I'd wonder if you are lazy or have an out-dated pedagogy. But, if you teach 100 or more students, nobody can expect you to assign massive individual research projects and reports. The larger the class size, the more automated the assessment we have to adopt to remain sane.

2. Class schedule. The faster-paced a class, the more likely you are to rely on simplistic assessments. The reason you cannot assign long papers to 100 students is the same reason you cannot assign long papers to a class that meets for two weeks: time is finite. I've taught a course disrupted by a natural disaster. The course met only six times, two hours per meeting. Time restrictions like that mean short lectures, minimal discussion, and simplistic assessments. It is the difference between an accelerated summer school class and the traditional 15 or 16-week semester. Pacing affects pedagogy.

3. Prep time. Preparing lessons and assignments takes time, especially the first time you teach a course and each time you must update the content. If you have insufficient prep time, you end up resorting to a publisher's prepared materials ("content modules") and referring students to other resources. For online courses, prep time has to be sufficient to record, edit, and post, and test multimedia content. Linking to external resources, which is wise when there is superior content, also takes time. Yet, we often lack the prep time to deliver the best traditional or online experiences to students.

4. Tools and training. Too often, schools provide insufficient technical tools and training to faculty. Too many of my colleagues tell me that they were expected to buy software or hardware and obtain whatever skills they needed without institutional support. Offering minimal training to faculty often causes more confusion and frustration than offering none at all. Support needs to be a priority for any technology that is used in a traditional, hybrid, or online course.

All the issues mentioned affect traditional and online courses. The problem is that online courses tend to have more of these issues, in more severe forms, than their traditional counterparts. For example, the rush towards "massive" online courses ("open" or "closed" to public) epitomizes the problem. Taking the worst aspects of lecture hall models and expanding them exponentially is ludicrous.

Online education can be great, though I do admit my bias for hybrid and "flipped" models over fully online course. However, if online courses are constrained in ways that lead to embracing the worst of teaching practices, then there will be a turn against online institutions and instruction. The problem is not online education: it is how institutions are shaping the courses.

Sadly, online education is viewed by many as a way to attract as many students as possible to an institution. The sales pitch is that the courses will let people obtain degrees. Instead of referring to the best and most effective practices, "efficiency" in online education refers to speed. Any compression of the educational experience risks reducing classes to rote memorization, not critical thinking and discovery.

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