Madison, Wis. – OK, maybe backlash is too strong a word.
But some distance-learning leaders are starting to raise questions and concerns about President Obama’s new online-education proposal, a great course giveaway that would pump $500-million into freely available Web-based courses.
Are new courses needed? Would students get help working through them? Would their privacy be protected as they use the material? All of those issues came up here during last week’s Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning.
Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, argued that course development wasn’t a “terribly high need.” Many online courses have already been created, she pointed out. Why not start from existing material?
Joel Kolberg, a U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee student, does some of his coursework online. Colleges would get help offering online classes under a new Obama administration plan, but some distance education leaders are starting to question it. (Michael I. Kienitz for The Chronicle)
“I’d rather see more of this money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented,” said Ms. Poley, an adult-education expert whose consortium consists of about 65 state universities and land-grant colleges.
The consortium president was one of several people to publicly worry about the fine print of Mr. Obama’s plan during the distance-learning conference, which drew about 800 people to Madison.
Chere Gibson, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor emerita whose research has focused on distance learning, expressed concern about making courses available without an infrastructure to get students through them.
“It’s unethical to allow a student to have access to courses and not provide a support system that allows them to have success,” Ms. Gibson said during a panel discussion, prompted by a question from a Chronicle reporter. “There needs to be some kind of support system for learners, within the system. And it’s not inexpensive.”
The Obama administration has yet to release many details of its online course plan, one small piece of a sweeping community-college assistance package. But officials have repeatedly cited Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative as a potential model. The project builds software-enhanced online courses that track students’ progress and provide them with feedback on problems. If the courses are used in combination with instructors, they can feed information to professors about where students are struggling.
If government-backed courses were based on this tracking-intensive model, Ms. Poley said, that raises questions about how long the data gathered would be kept, who would have access to it, how it would be used, and how students’ identities would be protected.
“If you have people recording everything that you’re doing in an online environment, even when you’re working on a problem, to study how you’re working on that problem, unobtrusively, there are big privacy questions,” she said. “Many people in that population group will not necessarily understand how much under the microscope they are.”
She added, “I think their little experiment is a nice little experiment – and there are a lot of other nice little experiments about. I want to see something much more systemic, and with much more input. I think they should have a summit.”