The small, liberal-arts college where I teach English is beginning to experiment with online education, which raises a set of justified concerns about whether such courses are contrary to the mission of our institution.
Our college is developing a few online courses, primarily to assist students in completing their degree programs in four years. Several of our preprofessional programs have tight schedules and course sequences that do not mesh easily with the schedules of courses in our core curriculum. In addition, a growing proportion of students want to spend a semester abroad, which places even greater constraints on their academic schedules.
Students typically offset those scheduling difficulties by taking a few summer courses, sometimes at our college, but more often at community colleges in their hometowns. They will probably take online courses from other institutions as they become available.
Obviously, our college does not want students to take courses elsewhere. Transfer credits represent a loss of revenue. More important, a large number of transfer credits undermines the integrity of our academic program.
We have no way of regulating courses at other colleges. Sometimes the courses are roughly equivalent to ours, but other times they are radically different (and possibly selected by students because they are reputedly easier than our versions).
Accepting those transfer credits seems particularly troubling when students replace core courses such as our interdisciplinary "Cultural Heritage" sequence -- the cornerstone of the curriculum, in my opinion -- with loosely related "Western Civilization" courses from other colleges. But our college is reluctant to disallow such substitutions because doing so would only add to the growing numbers of fifth-year "super seniors."
If we are limited to traditional methods of course delivery, the college is likely to be faced with multiple choices from an unappealing menu: Permit the softening of our mission? Regulate the scheduling of classes on multi-year cycles? Require students to commit to preprofessional programs early on? Restrict the number of students eligible to study abroad? Refuse to accept most transfer credits? Any one of those choices presents trade-offs that are too problematic to readily consider.
So here we are, experimenting with a few online courses as a way to cut this Gordian knot.
Nevertheless, as I described in my previous column, there remains a good deal of faculty resistance to the notion of online education. No doubt some of the objections are justified.
For starters, it is undeniable that students and teachers learn from each other through personal interaction. A class is more than the dissemination of material followed by testing and grading. I am sure that I communicate as much by my tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language as I do by the words I use. I adapt my classes to the nonverbal cues of my students all the time. A transcript of a class is only a partial representation of a complex, interactive performance -- even when the teacher is the only one who speaks.
Also, in every class, there is the important element of unplanned, extracurricular interaction. How much time do we spend meeting with students in our offices, eating with them in the cafeteria, walking with them between buildings? I know I remember those encounters with my professors more than almost any lectures I attended. What about the relations of students with one another, the informal conversations that continue after classes?
Altogether, the human dynamic -- one of the primary attractions of the small college -- seems impossible to replicate online.
I know plenty of studies say that some learning outcomes are met more successfully by online courses than by traditional ones. But I'm certain there are dimensions of learning that cannot be measured. The benefits of a course may not even manifest themselves for years, and maybe not even on a conscious level. Much of what we learn is too subtle for outcomes testing, and, in some respects, the design of online courses can encourage rote learning and "teaching to the test." Online education is typically designed for professional credentialing rather than holistic education. In that sense, the inappropriate use of online courses in a liberal-arts context can reduce the complexity of what we teach in favor of the illusion of learning based on the simplistic and quantifiable.
Online courses in a liberal-arts context also raise the question of why a student would want to pay the same price for a course that probably does not include access to the full range of personalized experiences and individualized feedback. Why not take an online course from Trump University instead? Doesn't introducing online education at a traditional college legitimize the services of those online "universities" with whom we may be competing? Is that what we want to become if it is profitable?
In any case, how can we compete with those for-profit institutions without hiring or training an entirely new faculty? As our tenured professors retire, they could be replaced by part-time "facilitators," "content providers," and "evaluators" at a fraction of the cost. Maybe most of the work of teaching could be outsourced to other countries, and evaluation entirely automated. Eventually, we could disband the entire brick-and-mortar operation, and go entirely online. Aren't we standing on the verge of a slippery slope that will lead to the abandonment of our values as we try to compete in markets that we never should have entered in the first place?
See how easy it is to panic on this issue?
As I consider all of the above, I am almost persuaded that online education is anathema to the liberal-arts college. Perhaps I have gone over to the dark side by designing an online version of "Cultural Heritage." It's just another step in the corporatization of education.
But -- after a few deep breaths -- I still think there are some benefits, apart from flexible scheduling, that mitigate the potential costs and risks of online education.
Traditional teaching methods sometimes seem absurdly archaic, even to someone who grew up before the Internet. I stand up there, in front of a group of students -- many of whom are more alert at some other time of day -- with a stone in my hand, inscribing my thoughts on a giant piece of slate. I might as well be clad in hides and drawing with a stick in the sand.
Of course ancient practices have some value in the culture. It is important always to have a few monks, somewhere, preserving the art of illuminating manuscripts. But to reject technological innovations outright, clinging to old methods, even if they were relatively effective in their time, seems more like fearful, apocalyptic confrontationalism than sound pedagogical practice.
There are a lot of sentimental attachments in play here, too. Lots of faculty members were kids who enjoyed buying office supplies every September for the coming school year. They are deeply attached to the material culture of education, and they find it hard to think of themselves as "teachers" without the physical trappings -- the pencils, chalk, notebooks, and desks. Are we really teachers if we run a class in our pajamas using a home computer?
But think about all of the time and resources that are spent just getting 30 people into a room at roughly the same time in a reasonably presentable state. What does it cost to house all of us nearby, transport us, and maintain the rooms in which we meet? What about the inefficiency caused by variable rates of learning? Some students need more time, others less; almost no one is provided with exactly the right amount of instruction at just the right moment.
Multiply that expenditure by millions for all the classes that take place every year. Could those trillions of dollars and eons of opportunity cost be spent more effectively elsewhere in education?
But I worry that I am talking like someone trying to sell a monorail to a small town, when all they need are a few more bus stops.
Perhaps it is better to think of online and traditional education as complementary rather than antagonistic. Each has the strengths of its weaknesses. Students have different learning styles and multiple intelligences; some will respond better to a well-designed online course than a classroom, at least in some subjects.
Students who never speak voluntarily in class discussions sometimes become the stars of online discussion groups. Hasn't e-mail improved students' access to faculty members?
And perhaps in online courses students who prefer the classroom will learn new skills such as the diplomacy that writing requires in the absence of nonverbal cues. Perhaps faculty members will discover skills they did not know they possessed as they explore the possibilities of new educational technologies. At the very least, the effectiveness of traditional versus online courses depends on who is teaching, who is learning, and how it is done.
Why not hybridize the methods of course delivery, so that students can tailor their schedules to their variable workloads and personal habits? Why not create classes that are partly online and partly in-person, and, in the process, draw on the strengths of both methods? Perhaps a partial and selective online delivery of courses need not be a second-rate substitute; instead, it could be a first-rate supplement to the traditional curriculum.
Why not let the experiment be made?
The slippery-slope scenario says less about online education than it does about the lack of trust that exists between faculty members and administrators. In order to allay faculty fears, the development of online courses in a liberal-arts context requires some commitment from the college that pedagogy will always have a higher priority than economic expediency.
Specifically, that means a commitment to maintain small classes online, so that students can receive individual attention. It means that online courses should have a personal dimension, which requires teachers to be just as accessible (in person, by telephone, or by e-mail) as traditional faculty members. The college should place limits on the percentage of a student's overall education that can be completed entirely online (perhaps not more than the equivalent of one full-time semester). And, just like other courses, online courses should be subject to peer review, so that the same standards of difficulty and evaluation are maintained across the curriculum.
Perhaps most important, online courses should be taught by the regular, full-time, tenured faculty members as the equivalent of traditional teaching assignments. Online education should not be used a means of unbundling the teaching functions and deprofessionalizing the faculty. And the content of online courses should remain under the faculty control; it should not be allowed to become a slick, corporate product with no relation to the values of the institution.
Ultimately, whether one supports online education or not depends on whether one trusts the integrity of one's administrators. How will they balance the values of liberal-arts education with the demands of the marketplace?