Reflection at Midterm Time

[The following are late posts from this past semester]

At mid-semester after I’ve returned the first exam I feel more disconnected from my online students than my face-to-face ones.  The online class seemed to do worse on the exam; many didn’t learn the analytical parts of the material.

I don’t *know* that the outcomes are worse in my online course, but if they are, I can’t rule out the possibility that the fault is mine as an inexperienced instructor.  Still, my course design is pretty solid, much better than just moving lectures online.

Doing test corrections via skype is in many ways easier than doing them in my office.  Skype is more portable and it’s really one-to-one which my office isn’t always.

An observation from both sections, online & F2F:  Students aren’t learning except at a superficial level.  They are learning the symptoms but not the causes.

“Researchers know a lot about how the brain learns, and it’s shocking how rarely that knowledge influences our education system. Studies of physics classes in particular have shown that after completing a traditional class, students can recite Newton’s laws and maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot apply the laws to problems they haven’t seen before. They’ve memorized the information, but they haven’t learned it — much to their teachers’ surprise.”

This is analogous to how my middle-school son Scott does his math sheets, which offer multiple choice answers (for ease of grading, I assume).  He looks for the multiple choice answer which is right, rather than solving the problem and then selecting the right multiple choice item.  This isn’t merely reversing the order.  When you start from the answer, the problem solving is very different, more mechanical and less learning occurs.  No wonder kids don’t like math any more.

It may be only a perception, but I feel connected to my f2f students.  I can see their body language in class; I can tell when they’re getting something or not.  Not so with my online students.

At the UNC-Wilmington Teaching Economics workshop I attended in early October, I spoke with Pete Schuhmann, a colleague who told me he’s taught online for years (as well as f2f) and that his online courses are *never* as good as f2f.   That made me wonder how his online courses were structured.

When people describe online courses as “lower quality,” what do they mean exactly?  From my perspective, it may mean that (many) online courses provide an inferior learning environment in the sense that it takes more student effort to learn the same content.  If so, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe such courses as *harder*.

Can you learn to dance from a book?  Can you learn to computer program from a lecture?  Perhaps some people can, but for most of us, no.  You have to *do* those things, practice those things to learn them well.  This may be one thing that tends to be missing from online courses.

Even if online courses do provide an inferior learning environment that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer them, as long as we assess them the same way as our f2f courses and as long as students know what they’re in for.   In other words, students in online courses shouldn’t be graded more leniently than in the comparable face-to-face course.  I teach the same class f2f and online.  I don’t teach them the same way, but the content, the learning objectives are identical.

The online course is harder for the average student, for most students.  Why?  Because I’m not there to explain things since there is no class sessions.

This isn’t a radical finding.  Some teachers are harder than others teaching the same section.  Some courses are harder than others.  we think nothing of allowing students to take GenEd courses with the goal of passing them for credit, rather than mastering the material (as we would like them to for a course in the major). Students take a mix of classes/difficulties to complete their degree.

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1 Response to Reflection at Midterm Time

  1. Tim Owens says:

    Two brief thoughts after reading this (and I love that you’re blogging this, no matter how late):

    “Because I’m not there to explain things since there is no class sessions.”
    You’re certainly “available” but not in the same way as F2F. It requires effort from the student to get an explanation from you. They can’t just raise their hand. That certainly changes the dynamic and if the student has never taken an online course before I can imagine that being uncomfortable.

    “You have to *do* those things, practice those things to learn them well. This may be one thing that tends to be missing from online courses.”
    I’m hesitant to just dismiss that online courses are not “doing” things. I think it depends what you’re doing. I’ve seen instruction on computer programming that used the beauty of the web and online to much better effect than sitting in a classroom learning to program (See Code School, Codeacademy, or Khan Academy’s CS courses for decent examples). I think digital storytelling is a perfect example of where the web is a perfect medium for instruction versus F2F. I do think some disciplines will lend themselves better to F2F than others though.

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