Do online classes suck?

Before arriving at my current posting, I would have thought the idea that online classes compared poorly to their offline counterparts was one that was slowly and inevitably fading away. But a recent suggestion by a colleague that we might tell incoming freshmen that real students take traditional meatspace courses and those just interested in a diploma go for the online classes caught me a bit off-guard.

I want to be able to argue that online courses are as good as their offline counterparts, but it’s difficult, because we don’t really know that. And this is for a lot of reasons.

The UoP Effect

First, if traditional and elite universities had been the originators of successful online courses and degrees, or if they had promoted those successes better (since I suspect you can find some pretty substantial successes reaching back at least three decades), we wouldn’t have the stigma of the University of Phoenix and its kin. For many, UoP is synonymous with online education, particularly in these parts (i.e., Phoenix).

Is UoP that bad? I don’t know. All I have to judge them on is people I’ve met with UoP degrees (I was not at all impressed), and what I’ve heard from students. What I do know is that they spend a lot of money on advertising and recruiting, and not very much money on faculty, which to me suggests that it is a bad deal.

Many faculty see what UoP and even worse for-profit start-ups are doing and rightly perceive it as a pretty impoverished model for higher education. They rightly worry that if their own university becomes known for online education, it will carry the same stigma a University of Phoenix degree does.

The Adjuncts

At ASU, as with many other research universities, the online courses are far more likely to be taught by contingent faculty rather than core tenure-track faculty, and as a result the students are more likely to end up with the second-string. I’ll apologize for demeaning adjuncts: I know full well that if you stack up the best teachers in any department there is a good chance that adjuncts will be among them, or even predominate. But on average, I suspect that a class taught by an adjunct instructor is simply not as good as one taught by full-time research faculty. There are a lot of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important one is that they do not have the level of support from the university that regular faculty do.

I’ve been told by a colleague here that they wanted to teach in the online program but were told that they were “too expensive” to be employed in that capacity. And there is a model that is beginning to separate out course design, “delivery”(ugh!) or “facilitation,” and evaluation. But I suspect the main reason more full-time faculty don’t teach online is more complicated.

Online is for training, not complex topics

This used to be “Would you trust a brain surgeon with an online degree?” which is actually a pretty odd question. Brain surgeons in some ways have more in common with auto mechanics than they do with engineers, but the point was to test whether you would put yourself in mortal danger if you were claiming online education was good. Given how much surgery is now done using computer-controlled tools, I think some of that question is moot now, but there remains this idea that you can learn how to use Excel online, but you certainly cannot learn about social theory without the give-and-take of a seminar.

It’s a position that is hard for me to argue against, in large part because it’s how almost all of us in academia learned about these things. I too have been taught in that environment, and for the most part, my teaching is in that environment. As one colleague noted, teaching in a physical classroom is something they have been taught how to do and they have honed their craft; they do it really well. Why are they forced to compete for students with online courses when they know they would not be as effective a teacher in that environment?

But in many ways this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Few schools require “traditional” faculty to teach online, though they may allow or even encourage it. As a result the best teachers are not necessarily trying to figure out how to make online learning great. We are left with the poor substitute of models coming from industry (modules teaching employees why they should wear a hair net) and the cult of the instructional designer.

Instructional Designers

As long as I’ve already insulted adjuncts, I’ll extend to instructional designers. I know a lot of brilliant ones, but the “best practices” make online education into the spoon-feeding idiot-proof nonsense that many faculty think it is. It is as if the worst of college education has been simmered until you get it down to a fine paste, and this paste can be flavored with “subject expertise.” Many are Blackboard personified.

When you receive a call–as I recently did–for proposals to change your course so that it can be graded automatically, using multiple guess exams and the like, it makes you wonder what the administration thinks good teaching is.

I am a systematizer. I love the idea of learning objectives aligned with assessments and all that jazz. But in sitting through a seminar on Quality Matters recently, we found ourselves critiquing a course that encouraged participation on a discussion board. How did discussion align with the learning objectives? It didn’t. OK, let’s reverse engineer it. How can you come up with a learning objective, other than “can discuss matters cogently in an online forum” that encourages the use of discussion-based learning. Frankly, one of the outcomes of discussion is a personalized form of learning, a learning outcome that really comes out as “Please put your own learning outcome here, decided either before or after the class.” Naturally, such a learning outcome won’t sit well with those who follow the traditional mantra of instructional design.

QM has its heart in the right place: it provides a nice guideline for making online courses more usable, and that’s important. But what is vital is making online spaces worthy of big ideas, and not just training exercises.

The Numbers

I like the idea of the MOOC, and frankly, it makes a lot of sense for a lot of courses. It’s funny when people claim their 100-student in-person class is more engaging than a 1,000-student online course. In most cases, this is balderdash. Perhaps it is a different experience for the 10 people who sit up front and talk, but generally, big classes online are better for more students than big classes off.

Now, if you are a good teacher, chances are you do more than lecture-and-test. You get students into small groups, and they work together on meaningful projects, and the like. Guess what: that’s true of the good online instructors as well.

I think you can create courses that scale without reducing them to delivery-and-test. ASU is known for doing large-scale adaptive learning for our basic math courses, for example, and I think there are models for large-scale conversation that can be applied to scalable models for teaching. It requires decentering the instructor–something many of my colleagues are far from comfortable with–but I am convinced highly scalable models for interaction can be developed further. But scalable courses aren’t the only alternative.

I think the Semester Online project, which allows students from a consortium of universities to take specialized small classes online, is a great way to start to break the “online = big” perception. Moreover, you can make small online course materials and interactions open, leading to a kind of TOOC (Tiny Open Online Course) or a Course as a Fishbowl.

Assessment as Essential

I’ll admit, I’m not really a big part of the institutionalized assessment process. But it strikes me as odd that tenure, and our continued employment as professors, is largely based on an assessment of the quality of our research, not just how many papers we put out–though of course, volume isn’t ignored. On the other hand, in almost every department in the US, budgeting and success is based on FTEs: how can you produce more student hours with less faculty hours. Yes, there is recognition for effective and innovative teaching. But when the rubber hits the road, it’s the FTEs that count.

Critics of online education could be at least quieted a bit if there were strong structures of course and program assessment. Not just something that gets thrown out there when accreditation comes up, but something that allowed for the ongoing open assessment of what students were learning in each class. This would change the value proposition, and make us rethink a lot of our decisions. It would also provide a much better basis for deciding on teachers’ effectiveness (although the teacher is only one part of what leads to learning in a course) than student evals alone.

This wouldn’t fix everything. It may very well be that people learn better in small, in-person classrooms, but that it costs too much to do that for every student or for every course. The more likely outcome, it seems to me, is that some people learn some things better online than they do offline. If that’s the case, it would take the air out of the idea that large institutions are pursuing online education just because it is better for their bottom line.

In any case, the idea that we are making serious, long-term investments and decisions in the absence of these kinds of data strikes me as careless. Assessment doesn’t come for free, and there will be people who resist the process, but it seems like a far better metric of success than does butts in seats.

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  1. Posted 12/8/2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Good post Alex. I think part of the issue is valuing the particular experience of FTF, which can’t be replicated online, rather than meeting certain competencies, which is how courses get translated.

    • alex
      Posted 12/8/2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      That is an interesting point. I guess the question is how much value we should put in providing an “experience” over what that experience does to people. The two things are inevitably inseparable: we are a product of our experiences.

      To that end, I think that someone who has never had a traditional classroom experience is probably missing out. The question is whether that experience of the classroom is valuable enough to repeat. I know there are people who far prefer to learn in classroom settings, and I know that there will continue to be a market for that. But I strongly suspect it is a relatively niche market.

      (I will note that there are many in my current unit, the New College at ASU, who want to re-create parts of the residential experience at a SLAC. I think there is something to this, but–in the end–I’m not sure exactly what. More importantly, I’m not sure there is the economic model or support from the university to really do this, at least outside of the honors program.)

      But I don’t disagree with the “meeting competencies” part of this. I mean, you are in college to learn, and while part of that is to learn what it’s like to be in college, that really shouldn’t be the long and the short of it. Right now, I fear what people learn most in college is how to buckle under authority, meet minimum standards, and pass tests. It’s an awfully large investment to provide that to students, and if that’s most of what the undergraduate degree becomes, that would be a shame… I don’t particularly like the terms “competencies” or “skills,” but I don’t see why we can’t assess wisdom.

  2. Posted 12/8/2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I think we also have to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous elements in online instruction. Meaningful critical discourse can, of course, occur in both environments but one is of the moment and the other of reflection. Courses that are canned are not the same as those that embrace collaboration over isolation.

  3. Tracy
    Posted 5/2/2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I have found that online classes are never as good as in person classes. I have a 4.0 and am going to graduate next week. So I have managed to stay on the top of things always. So, you can rule me being lazy out (in case you were thinking it). The reason I say this is because you get less time with the teacher first of all. Quality one on one person time with the instructor can have a huge impact on your grades. The less of it you get the worse you will do. The other thing is that technology will limit your experience as well. I am in the technological field myself and I can tell you online classes will present their own groups of problems that person to person classes would not.

  4. Wolf_22
    Posted 9/2/2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    People keep forgetting about the peripheral aspects of online learning: installing software, having minimal requirements, having bandwidth, having a system that’s online, using servers that work, instruction that is clearly-written and makes use of words native English speakers never need elaboration of, etc. Many foreigners tend to be in graduate classes and even more tend to be the very instructors teaching the online courses, yes, out of every online class I’ve ever had, 80% of all were taught by non-native professionals who could rarely write complete sentences. The technology stuff should be self-explanatory and please, let’s not make believe that systems never have hiccups or that time is never wasted trying to leverage something on a site that is either non-cross browser compatible or can be ran without things ranging from plugins to additional software being needed. What a joke.

    The worst thing about online courses? Time. They take so much time to screw with because of the things I mention above and other things, such as normally escaping the standards that somehow form expectations in face-to-face classes. For example, every online course I’ve ever had always had more requirements, expectations, assignments, etc. Those of you who are foolish will somehow dilute yourselves into believing that this somehow comes off as more enriched learning, but I’m not sold on this as I think what it REALLY is is just more legwork. I’ve lost count to the number of online classes I’ve had in my life where approximately 75% of the learner expectations consisted of weeding through erroneous documentation the lazy instructor uploaded just to find something that could’ve been more efficiently organized in Blackboard or whatever system was employed.

    There’s so many problems with online learning that it surprises me that so many people seem to be okay with it… But then again, with so many people becoming more and more anti-social and falling into that social ideal where they think Facebook equates to socializing, I guess I can’t say I’m surprised.

    If you think online learning is the way to go when you have the means to take a face-to-face course, you’re kidding yourself and need to go back to high school to get the lost education you clearly lack and need to see the things I’m only skimming the surface of.

  5. Joe
    Posted 5/8/2018 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I completed an online Master’s degree last year, and found many of my classes to be completely useless. I had two professors for a total of five classes, who simply quit interacting with the class halfway through the semester. When I complained about their lack of engagement, they either did not respond, or stated that the “conversations between students was more important than any pedagogical dictatorship I can impose”, whatever the hell that means. Frankly, I pay $1000 per class to learn from people who know what they are talking about, supposedly, not fumble around in the dark with a bunch of other students. Also, if an instructor didn’t show up to class for 3 weeks in a F2F setting, students would be lining up at the department head’s door to demand a refund. Online, the students have very little recourse when an instructor “goes dark”.

    Instructor laziness aside, the other fundamental problem with online classes is the inability to have a real discussion that transmits as much information as a verbal one in real time. It may take a semester for a thread to have the same number of back and forth responses between student and teacher, which can be had in a single F2F classroom session. In addition, you have to read through sometimes voluminous responses from other students who don’t have a clue what they are talking about. There’s nothing more frustrating than reading through 30 pages of student posts (which are always in some degree inaccurate), only to find out the original question is never answered.

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  1. […] as face-to-face classes or even whether or not online classes “work.” (See “Do Online Classes Suck?” by Alex Halavais on this point). We’ve all seen bad teaching in the best of cozy face-to-face classroom […]

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