20 June 2014

Online Re-, Dis-, Mis-, and Anti-Education

I am really good at going to school.   A few years ago I was contemplating a career change, so I waded in gently, taking one course towards retraining at a time at the nearest community college, where tuition was only slightly more expensive than the required textbooks.  When I could take a course online, I did.  It saved me forty minutes of commuting time (not to mention gas money) for every brick-and-mortar class meeting and didn't lock up my schedule as I continued to work full-time.

Online education was a surprise.  My education, from high school through to a Ph.D., involved top-shelf, private institutions, but the best science class I ever took was the required chemistry sequence that the community college offered online.  Few of the classmates I got to know in brick-and-mortar classes felt the same way about it.  They mostly urged one another to take chemistry in person if possible--it was just too hard without the discipline and structure of regular lecture meetings. So tempted as I am to use my experience as evidence that online learning can work, I resist.  It can be excellent, but its excellence depends on the same factors (pedagogical labor, student preparation and motivation) that shape non-online learning.

The other surprise was just how bad it can be, and just what a difference that badness makes. Where the pedagogical labor is missing, all the excellent student preparation and motivation in the world will not make up for it.  The worst class I ever took was also online, a four-credit Introduction to Psychology.  By the end of the course, I had honed my skills in the following:

  • Surfing the textbook index (having memorized the desirable page ranges) so that I could complete the quizzes in the allotted time without doing the reading beforehand.  There were usually a couple of questions that I could answer on the basis of my prior knowledge or common sense, so this was not difficult.
  • Composing post-quiz emails to the instructor to point out ambiguous wording, misleading rendering of the textbook information in the quiz questions, and outright errors in the machine-generated questions.  After all, if I was getting it wrong, what chance did students have who lacked Ph.D's?
  • Making polite required conversation with strangers online.

The instructor was an adjunct, a full-time clinician teaching the class around a 9 - 5 work schedule. In no way did the instructor's extensive clinical experience or professional expertise shape the educational experience.  There was no sense of "...and this is how the world looks different if you study this field" or "devoting an entire chapter to the history of this discipline is important because..." or "here are some ways that this information is important for the profession you're training for..." or "here are the problems these disciplinary tools can solve."  There was an expensive textbook, and there were weekly quizzes to goad us to read it.  A required online discussion board was the only effort at interactivity.  The instructor would pose some question--generally one related to the course reading that invited us to draw on personal experience--and we had to answer it and reply to two classmates' answers.  There was a midterm and a final, taking the same multiple-choice format as the quizzes.

My only contact with the instructor was responses to my emails about bad quiz questions (both the individual response to me and a message to the class as a whole explaining why everyone's score had gone up).  The bank of quiz questions for the course included questions generated by a different textbook than the one we were using, which produced some of the confusion I had identified. Otherwise, the instructor's labor mostly seemed to consist of trouble-shooting problems other students were having with the course software.  Given the salary scale for adjuncts at the institution in question, it would have been unreasonable to ask more.

Did I learn any psychology?  Sort of.  In those cases where information in the textbook captured my native curiosity, I read more carefully.  I did discover that certain psychological terms (e.g., "negative conditioning") are frequently misused by laypeople and that there are names for the various ways we misjudge ourselves (e.g., "confirmation bias"). I added a few key figures in the history of psychology to my general knowledge of the world.  I showed the pictures of visual illusions to my kids.  I got an A.  

Because I'm really good at going to school and I've done a lot of it, I already had in place a great deal of the mental infrastructure that an introductory course can impart.  Presumably, had I come to the class knowing less, I would have put in more grade-driven effort and acquired some of that knowledge.  I suspect, however, that I simply would have refined my textbook-scanning, index-surfing, quiz-taking technique.  Everything in the course design validated efficient processing of information.  Nothing encouraged wonder or prompted questions.  The lengthy narratives in the textbook sought to convey that psychology was a living field of study, with unexplored territory and a capacity for error, but this understanding was hermetically sealed within the dome of "course content."  Nothing in the student's interactions with the textbook made it possible for students to experience the provisional and transformative power of knowledge in this discipline.

There is nothing that an online class can do badly that can't be replicated in a poorly taught lecture class.  The problem is that the proliferation of online classes make this kind of education-substitute seem normal, particularly for students who get little opportunity to experience any other way of doing it.

1 comment :

  1. @author i think online education is not good for those who don't have any other thing to do (not working adults). It is really tough for working adults to manage time for physical classes and education. so i think Online education expand and provide them wide opportunities to continue their studies. do you agree with my thought?