Is quality elusive in online education? Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s lead education blogger, wrote an interesting story lamenting the frequently futile search for “quality” in online education. She reported that last year more than 7 million students, slightly over one-third of all U.S. college students, took at least one course online for credit. As a traditional brick and mortar teacher who has eyed online teaching with great interest, I can’t help but be disappointed in the results of virtual instruction. See my previous posts here and here.
My feeling is that a great deal of large publishing houses decided that digitizing their textbooks and offering “online” education would be an additional revenue stream. The big players jumped into the market and an arms race ensued. Major players spent dollars fast and furious developing virtual programs. Virtual/online curriculum proliferated in college programs (see graphic below), and spread to K12 school districts, as online charter schools took off. Fast-forward a decade and the outcomes of online learning start coming out in the research. The picture is not pretty. Major corporate interests have invested millions only to find out that online education doesn’t work. Minority students aren’t well served. At-risk students aren’t well served. Credit-deficient students aren’t well served. The only significant group thriving with online education is the GATE/gifted population and it turns out they don’t need much to thrive anyhow. Now these publishing houses have found out that their content and programs are not compelling, so they are rebranding distance/online/virtual education into “blended learning.”
Most online courses contain brief video lectures, readings, self-correcting multiple-choice quizzes, and discussion board forums. Basically, educational publishers have copied the traditional classroom read-lecture-write-discuss format in the online realm. Audrey Watters questions whether we should frame teaching and learning in the language we use to talk about the Web and media. Can high quality education be reduced to mere content delivery? Will effective teaching ever be as easy as putting resources online? Kamenetz suggests we need to define and measure “quality” in online education. Admittedly this will be difficult, as four hundred years of education research has not yet yielded any consensus on a definition for quality in face-to-face education.
Adaptive learning shows promise in online education, especially in the area of reaching remedial students. A central feature of adaptive learning is that it varies the presentation of content according to the user’s responses. If you get questions wrong, the machine adjusts and gives you easier questions and if you get questions right, the machine starts giving you harder questions. This is hard for a teacher to do in front of a live audience of 35-40 students, but a computer can do it easily. I suspect that the survivors in online education will be the institutions that have a deep stable of dynamic teachers capable of forging positive relationships with their students and facile enough with computers to personalize engaging lessons with adaptive technology.
Younger and at-risk students may benefit from gamification strategies, however, middle class, college-ready students may not need these bells and whistles. Deep down, they already know that education is a lot like life – you get out what you put in. And as it turns out, delayed gratification is a lesson that is extremely difficult to teach online.