July 29, 2013
So I read a blog article today on The Edublogger about online teaching and why it would be “the last day of teaching online” for the author. It was interesting and provocative and at the beginning of reading it I was all ready to be defensive and grab my sword and defend the distance ed camp but then after hearing him out to the end (and with an open mind) I actually can’t help but agree with what the author has to say. The world he describes, with it’s mega classrooms, completion rates below 20% and totally set-in-stone-video-recorded curricula sounds terrible…like factory farming or feedlots…something where basically nothing good could emerge. If this is his experience of online learning I’d say good riddance!
I think that as academics, we often can get seduced by the claims of distance ed….We can teach in our pajamas! We can lecture from the beach! We have a super captive audience of hundreds all around the world hanging on our every word!
Though in theory all of these ideas are true (and I’ve tested the first two…many, many times over) in practice it’s a lonely place and I’d speculate, actually a lot less glamorous than teaching with a bricks and mortar university or college. Sure you can lecture from anywhere and you’re not tied to a physical space, but you also lack a sense of rootedness and a community in which to share the quirky struggles and water cooler banter that comes with traditional academic life. No one on the beach cares about the insane email you just got about why your students work is going to be late yet again.) And, the same goes for the students. They have the ability to “get their degree at their own pace and in their own space” and yet they never chance run into their profs while eating lunch or while shopping at the grocery store and they certainly never see their profs as 3D people, engaged in all the trials and triumphs of life.
In short, the advances in distance learning have allowed everyone to access an almost totally pure stream of education and information and yet like trying to breathe pure oxygen, that stream of information is too much for our finite bodies to handle and process. And so the students disengage. And so the pressures of the “real” trump the responsibilities of the virtual+academic. And so classes, which never seemed so real to begin with begin to fade and students drop out and distance ed drops another percentage point in the polls. In turn, instructors get frustrated and lacking any real sense of connection to either their students or their admin leave as well and return to the places where they actually have to wear pants and are once more subject to the constraints of a physical location. And honestly, who can really blame them?
So…what do I as a grad with a distance ed MFA, an Associate Dean in an online college title, and an EdD candidate in Distance Education think about all of this? Good question.
I think that distance ed, with MOOCs and asynchronous learning and for-profit schools, is being put through its paces in a major way and the next 3 to 5 years are going to be very very interesting to watch because they very well might be make or break years. Honestly, I think that the MOOC system is unsustainable and I think that even asynchronous learning (and any other sort of learning-at-your-own-pace system) is destined for failure because it’s just not in the wheelhouse of what it means to be human…we just don’t learn in a vacuum and we don’t learn in a totally closed and isolated environment. We can learn small things and rote facts but without the support of a like-minded community and a couple strong mentors, what we learn is just head knowledge…recite it and perform it but it doesn’t change and challenge us deep inside.
I also think that as an Associate Dean in a program that has allowed me a fairly phenomenal level of autonomy and requires 4 hours of synchronous lecture per week, I’ve been unexpectedly blessed. My students are all “real people” to me even though they live scattered across four time zones because in my school the students are required to check in with me even as I am required to maintain consistent two-way contact with them. In my doctoral work, I am part of a tight-knit cohort and though I’m not even in the same country as many of my classmates, we are all bound by the consistency of weekly (or even daily) communication.
In conclusion…I don’t think distance education will save the world, or redeem overcrowded campuses or allow every person with an internet connection to gain their PhD. I think it’s a great dream and a compelling vision but I think in the end, people are people and where distance education will succeed is when the structure of the program itself honors what it means to be human. When the structure of the program seeks to be the magic bullet, thrusting into a sphere that is yet “unreached” or “undiscovered” it’s going to shine bright but then fizzle out, and for good reason. Can distance ed survive? I’m willing to bank the next 5 years of my life on a solid yes. : ) But…only if it happens on a human level that emphasizes transformational relationships over mere content regurgitation. The distance ed that emerges will be more long-distance relationship than YouTube tutorial, and I for one and happy to get through the growing pangs to see that reality come to pass.