• November 23, 2014

Who Is Driving the Online Locomotive?

Careers Illustration - Online Locomotive

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Careers Illustration - Online Locomotive

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Proponents of online learning often use train metaphors to describe its growing impact on the educational landscape. Those of us who teach at two-year colleges, especially, are constantly encouraged, prodded, hectored, cajoled—and sometimes even ordered—to get on board. Otherwise, we're told, we're likely to be run over.

As one who is skeptical regarding the long-term benefits of online learning, I would attest that the train metaphor is pretty apt. I sometimes feel as though I'm standing on the tracks, signaling "proceed with caution," while the online locomotive bears down on me, air horn reverberating.

I suspect others share that vivid nightmare. But what makes it especially sobering now is that, with the advent of MOOCs, the train is picking up steam and we're no longer alone in its destructive path. These days entire departments, disciplines, and even institutions potentially stand in the way, at risk of being pulverized along with the rest of us.

Thinking about that phenomenon has led me to wonder, lately, just who is at the throttle. I think that's a question well worth asking, and the answer ought to inform our response as faculty members. It seems to me that there are only a handful of possibilities:

Chronicle Vitae

Students. Supposedly everything we do in higher education is for the students, and we tend to be especially insistent on that point whenever we fear people might question our motives. Online learning is a perfect example. The reason we keep offering more and more classes online is that students are demanding them. Right?

Well, maybe. It's true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that "the slower rate of growth ... compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau."

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn't exactly hold up.

Faculty members. Are they driving the train by demanding to teach more and more classes online? After all, faculty members are often faulted for putting their own scheduling preferences ahead of students' needs and desires. Is this simply another case of professorial self-centeredness?

I don't think so. Speaking anecdotally for a moment, I've talked to literally scores of people who teach online, at my institution and others. Hardly any of them prefer it. Oh, they might prefer it in the sense that teaching online allows them more flexibility or reduces their commute. But the overwhelming majority of them tell me that, all things being equal, they would much prefer to teach in a traditional classroom, because they enjoy the personal interaction with students.

According to a 2009 report by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, only about 36 percent of faculty members have any experience developing or teaching an online course—a number that conforms closely to the roughly one-third of students who take classes online. Moreover, according to The Chronicle's report, the study also found that professors' general attitude toward online courses remains unfavorable—even among those who teach online: "70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction."

When it comes to MOOCs, even fewer faculty members are on board. In fact, as we saw during the recent exchange between San Jose State University's philosophy department and the Harvard professor Michael Sandel, for every faculty member developing a MOOC, there appear to be dozens who object to using such courses in lieu of more traditional offerings.

More telling, perhaps, is the recent Chronicle survey that found that 72 percent of faculty members who teach MOOCs don't believe their students should receive college credit. In other words, even supporters of MOOCs don't think they're as good as face-to-face instruction.

So it's not our colleagues at the throttle of the monstrous locomotive threatening to squash the rest of us.

Employers. Maybe it's the end users, the companies that hire our graduates, who insist on more and more—and bigger and bigger—online offerings. Certainly, if you listen to the administrators and politicians (and yes, I'll get to them in a moment), that would seem to be the case.

Unfortunately, that theory doesn't wash, either. Another recent survey conducted for The Chronicle found that employers have a favorable impression of all types of colleges and universities—except for online institutions. And while there's certainly a difference between students who complete their entire degrees online and those who just take a few online courses, the findings clearly suggest that employers don't trust online instruction as much as traditional methods.

Just a few weeks ago, in "Giving Employers What They Don't Really Want," Robert J. Sternberg, president of the University of Wyoming, tackled this issue directly. He noted that most of the employers surveyed by The Chronicle said they were looking to hire people with "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems" as well as having "ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning." The problem, Sternberg said, is that "those are not skills optimally developed through passive learning ... including MOOCs."

Whatever we've been told, I don't believe employers are demanding that students take more online classes or sign up for MOOCs. Which brings us to ...

Administrators. Since the "online revolution" began in the mid-1990s, I've taught at three different two-year colleges, visited many others, and sat through countless conference presentations trumpeting the latest technological breakthrough. My observation is that administrators, along with a handful of true believers among the faculty, have always been the primary proponents of online learning. On campus, at least, they're the ones driving the train.

Why? The main reason, I believe, is money. Online courses enable colleges to enroll students and "deliver content" inexpensively, since they don't require classrooms, parking spaces, restrooms, or, in some cases, even faculty offices. I've heard people argue that, done well, online courses can cost just as much as the face-to-face variety. That may be true, but I dare say that at most two-year colleges, they are offered as cheaply as possible, and that is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, for their existence.

California's higher-education leaders basically admitted as much when they considered, a few months ago, the possibility of "outsourcing" some of their course offerings. The problem as they saw it was that they couldn't afford to offer all the classes students wanted; and the solution, they thought, might just be MOOCs, which would enable them to provide those courses (in a manner of speaking) at comparatively low cost. Fortunately, that idea fell through.

Another reason that campus leaders—especially at two-year colleges—seem so anxious to embrace online learning is that it's "innovative." If there's one thing every community-college president wants carved on his or her tombstone, it's that he or she was "an innovator." (That, and maybe a "transformational leader.") Ironically, for many of those presidents, being innovative seems to mean doing exactly what everybody else is doing, only more of it.

Clearly, the online train that threatens to roll right over us has an administrator at the throttle, gleefully pushing the handle toward "full power."

Politicians. On the other hand, administrators are not alone. Joining them in driving the train is a politician (or two, or a dozen) shouting encouragement, or perhaps threats.

Administrators, after all, especially at public institutions (which nearly all community colleges are), serve at the pleasure of politicians. And what is it that pleases politicians? Apparently, it's for as many students as possible to take as many online classes as possible.

Exhibit A is an opinion essay by Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Randy Best that ran in Inside Higher Ed back in May. Entitled "Higher Ed in 2018," the essay foresees an educational landscape in which "more than 80 percent of professional degree programs [sic] ... will be earned online." Why? Because "rising tuition, declining government subsidies, stagnant endowments, and increased competition are challenging higher education like never before."

In other words, it's all about the cost. As the friend who sent me that essay noted, nowhere does it say anything about the quality of education people will be receiving in this brave new world. That's because all too often politicians, like administrators, aren't concerned with quality; they're more interested in the bottom line. And it's not just Republican politicians, like Jeb Bush, who fall into that category: The state senator in California who originally proposed outsourcing to MOOCs is a Democrat.

I understand that politicians have a duty to be good stewards of public money, as do college administrators; and I certainly don't have any objection to cutting costs where we can. But when our primary objective becomes making degrees as cheap as possible, rather than providing the best education possible, we're missing the mark as educators and doing no good for the future of our students or our nation.

That's why it's so important for us as faculty members to realize who's driving the online locomotive. It's not students, only about a third of whom take any online classes. It's not our colleagues, the vast majority of whom still aren't fully on board with online learning in general, much less with MOOCs. And it's certainly not employers, who over all seem to prefer that students take most of their coursework in traditional classrooms. It's the administrators and the politicians, whose priorities—let's be honest—are not the same as ours.

I sometimes wonder if the train is so big, and moving so fast, that it's just going to derail itself due to basic physics. But unless that happens, and until it does, the only way to slow it down is for enough of us to refuse to get on board and instead line the tracks, signaling "proceed with caution" with all our might.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.