The Failures of Online Education?

A research paper has been circulating around my institution recently.  Published in the September 2017 issue of American Economic Review, the research examined students who had taken online and face-to-face classes at a for-profit institution. Comparing the grades and retention rates of students enrolled in both formats, the authors write:

“We find that taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college. Grades are lower both for the course taken online and in future courses. Students are less likely to remain enrolled at the university.

This is pretty compelling stuff.  Especially considering that the study involved four years of data with over 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 different online classes. That’s a lot of data. The other part that’s novel is that the university offers almost identical coursework in face-to-face and online formats.  The classes use the same syllabus, use the same assessments and assignments and have similar class sizes. The big difference is that online participation is mostly through recorded lessons and asynchronous discussion forums while face-to-face involves real time student-student and student-instructor interactions.

Looking at the study from a methodological or analytical perspective, it’s hard to critique it. The study involves thousands of students who self-enrolled in similar face-to-face and online classes. The study is also longitudinal in that it tracks students’ future performance and success over a four-year span. The researchers also wisely remove students from the participant pool who may not have been able to enroll in the face-to-face classes due to distance from the physical locations. The only real criticism that some of my colleagues had was that the research focused on a large for-profit university that some inferred was a predatory institution. Otherwise, it’s a solid study.

I guess what I’m saying is that the findings can’t be easily dismissed from applying a critical perspective. We might be able to question its generalizability to other student populations but we can’t dismiss the big takeaway. This study shows convincingly that online classes negatively impacted student learning and their future success for the student enrolled in this institution.

So, what do we do with this information? Some of my colleagues are seeing this research as evidence that we should do away with online classes. For a lot of financial and cultural reasons, I don’t see this as likely. Rather than dismissing online education outright, the study offers a road map for our institutions to do some self-study. The type of data collected for this study can be easily obtained by almost any institution. But, how many of our campuses have? From my perspective, those are the real questions each of us needs to ask on our respective campuses:

  • How are online classes serving our students’ learning needs?
  • How can we be doing it better?

It’s easy to answer these in the abstract. Instead, we should use this study to start a larger, evidence-based conversation on our campuses about how we can close any performance gaps that our online students may be experiencing and work institutionally to provide the best online learning environments for them.


The Branded Teacher

I want to start this post by conveying my deepest respect for teachers. Over my 25 years of teaching in K-12 and higher education environments, I’ve worked with literally thousands of innovative and dedicated professionals. They spend countless hours creating lessons and grading papers and often spend hundreds of dollars out of their own money for classroom materials. They deserve our admiration and support.

I have concerns, though. But not with teachers’ quality or their dedication. Rather, I’m concerned about a growing trend in schools and in professional conferences: the branded teacher. If you know some teachers in schools, you likely know a Google Certified Innovator or an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Or maybe you know a Seesaw Teacher Ambassador or a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.  These are just a few of the big corporations who have developed branding relationships with educators. While these programs offer amazing professional development opportunities for teachers, I worry about the potential influence that these branding relationships could have on the profession, on our schools and on our students.

I first took notice of the potential influence of these branding relationships a few years ago when I served on the review committee for a statewide educational technology conference. As I reviewed conference proposals, I could see that some presentations appeared almost as if they were commercials for a specific technology. On some, a company representative was even listed as a co-presenter. After I raised concerns to the conference organizers, we tried to develop a more transparent review process to require proposers to disclose any existing branding relationships. The practice became pervasive enough that I chose to discontinue reviewing proposals for that conference.

One may ask, “So, what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned earlier, I have tremendous respect for teachers and I celebrate their efforts for professional growth and recognition. My concern lies with the potential influence these branding relationship can have on our schools. But I’m not the only one. Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing how widespread these branding relationships are and how some lawmakers and education experts have concerns. In the article, a Columbia University professor worries that some teachers can be “seduced to make greater use of the technology, given these efforts by tech companies.” A Maine attorney general explained, “any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic.”

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am unaffiliated with any corporation. I serve on the advisory board of two conferences, but I regularly disclose that information when I’m working with colleagues or when I’m blogging about my experiences with those groups. I have chosen to remain unaffiliated because I didn’t want my students or my colleagues to question my opinions or my advice.  Whether good or bad, my recommendations are not built on any relationships I have with any company, corporation or group.  They are my own.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing any teacher for developing a branding relationship with a company. For some schools, a teacher’s participation in a branding program can help the district acquire much needed technology or supplies. Also, with the low salaries that some teachers are paid, I totally understand their desire to seek additional compensation. But I worry about the ethical implications these relationships create. For instance, when I go for a medical check-up, I would hope that any prescription or treatment that my doctor recommends would be based on my needs as a patient and not on the doctor’s prior relationship with a pharmaceutical company. But that might not the case.  In a 2016 study of 280,000 doctors, researchers found that physicians’ “receipt of industry-sponsored meals was associated with an increased rate of prescribing the promoted brand-name medication to patients.” I think that many people would find that level of influence concerning.

And that’s my concern about branding relationships in education. Studies have found that teachers make over 1500 educational decisions each day. I worry that too many of those decisions are guided by the tacit influence of branding relationships with corporations rather than on the influence of best practices or from educational research.

When “Flipping” Doesn’t Work?

I’m going to get on a soap box here. When I feel the snark and sass bubbling up in me, I feel it’s probably good to disclose it to readers right from the start and to let people know that this is going to be one of those types of posts where I try to tactfully contain my ire.  We’ll see how that goes.

A colleague shared the following Inside Higher Ed article with me this morning.

Harvard Professor Tells Students They Should Come to Class

If you didn’t read it, here’s the gist. Dr. David J. Malan teaches a high enrollment Computer Science class.  The class typically has over 800 students enrolled and students attend the class in a large lecture room.  Last year, Dr. Malan decided to “flip” his class and told his students that they only needed to attend the first and last classes of the semester. He advised his students to watch videos of lectures and not attend face-to-face. At the time, Dr. Malan wrote, “Sitting in Sanders Theater, beautiful though it may be, has never been a particularly effective way to learn complex material.”

After a year of “flipping,” Dr. Malan is now reversing course and encouraging students to attend class. Reflecting on his decision, Dr. Malan writes, “enough former students reported that something was missing, not just the students themselves but the energy of an audience, that we decided to bring live lectures back this fall.”

While I commend the professor for trying something new and also being responsive to student learning needs, his efforts demonstrate something really important about flipping and instruction in general.

It’s not about the lecture but about the learning.

If that sounds familiar, it’s from a blog post I wrote in 2013. At the time, technology leaders were pronouncing it the Year of the Flipped Classroom and predicting a massive explosion of flipped classrooms across institutions of higher education. With the availability of video editing technology, streaming services and learning management systems, educational innovators saw a perfect storm for flipping. “Gone are the days when students need to pile into a large auditorium just to hear a lecture,” one expert wrote. In their eyes, lectures could be moved online and classes could instantly be “flipped.”

If you haven’t caught a certain repetitive word throughout this post so far, let me point it out: lecture. Many of us focus way too much on content delivery and not enough on engaging students actively in the learning process.  I’m sure Dr. Malan is a great lecturer but I’m betting that isn’t what students were missing from watching the video lectures over attending his classes. In a post on eSchool News, Alan November writes about Dr. Malan’s teaching and identifies three keys to his effectiveness.

  • Strengthen the social side of learning.
  • Teach students to self-assess.
  • Provide a public audience to inspire students to invent.

These don’t sound like someone who subscribes to the “stand and deliver” mode of learning. So, while some people may use the Insider Higher Ed post to show the ineffectiveness of flipped classroom, I’ll use it as an opportunity to celebrate the power of effective teaching through social engagement and self-assessment. That’s the real lesson here. Flipping initiatives that simply involve recording lectures and putting them online are doomed to fail. Our greatest powers as instructors aren’t based on our ability to explain or deliver content but to engage students in the learning process.

Everyone is Successful in the End

I can remember the moment vividly. I was in a meeting several years ago that was examining campus retention trends. An administrator was sharing data that showed that number of the students who had left the university. While some had transferred to other institutions, other students had quit pursuing a degree entirely. The data were pretty eye opening and sparked a great deal of discussion.

One of my colleagues was aghast. “How could so many students just simply quit?” he asked. We discussed the challenges that some of our students face.  Some are working multiple jobs. Others are single parents. Maybe a few are caring for loved ones or experiencing financial difficulties. As a public university, our students often need to navigate a whole host of challenges in order to succeed.

My colleague still couldn’t believe it. “Why would they just quit?” he asked. Before we go too far down this story, my colleague grew up in Africa and, from what he’s shared in this meeting and in other discussions I’ve had with him, it’s clear he understands challenges intimately and personally. Yet, he couldn’t comprehend why any student would give up. And that’s when he said something that created a fair amount of cognitive dissonance for me.

“In my culture,” he explained, “everyone is successful in the end.”

I have to admit. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. So, I pushed back a little. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“We don’t have the luxury of failure. Only success.  Everyone is successful in the end.”

Still, I struggled with his message.  “I don’t get it. Everyone is successful? How can that be? Everyone is successful?” I said, stressing the word “everyone.

My colleague smiled. “Everyone is successful in the end,” he reiterated. “If someone isn’t successful, it’s just not the end.”

That’s when the light went off. It wasn’t a cultural mantra about success or some message about the exceptional native abilities of his country mates. It was a mantra about work ethic and effort and persistence. The motto communicated that things are always going to be tough and challenges will always present themselves. But don’t give up. Keep working and you’ll be successful. You only stop when you’ve achieved success.

What I like about this story is the clash of cultures represented by my colleague and me. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset and grit, my colleague has lived it and embraces it as a cultural standard. And maybe that’s what should be happening more. While we communicate the need for persistence and perseverance in our classrooms, large portions of society still celebrate the savants, natural athletes and child geniuses. We need a cultural shift, one that communicates that success isn’t a gift for a few but a struggle achievable by all.

Resources for Teaching Larger Classes

I received an email from a colleague recently asking about resources for teaching larger classes. Clearly, teaching larger classes presents unique challenges that smaller classes do not. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only able to lecture to them. Here are some resources to help you better engage students and support their learning in your larger class.

Think like a tutor. This advice comes from a Faculty Focus post written by Dr. Maryellen Weimer, author of Learner-Centered Teaching. Rather than offering a list of teaching strategies for working with students in large classes, Weimer takes a different approach and discusses the qualities that instructors of large classes need to embrace. Weimer advises that professors of large classes need to be nurturant, socratic, progressive, indirect, reflective, and encouraging. While the post doesn’t provide specifics about how to navigate the challenges of large classrooms, it offers a mindset for how to accomplish this task successfully.

Focus on effective strategies. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University houses a treasure trove of strategies for teaching large classes. They recognize that in some situations teaching a large class can feel like managing “a small city.” In their teaching guide, they offer practical strategies for taking attendance, dealing with cheating, integrating technology and grading student work.

Make it active. Can active learning work in large classrooms?  Absolutely. Check out this research that was published in Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal. Physics professors incorporated peer instruction strategies in classes with more than 200 students and found significant improvements over traditional, lecture-based instruction. In focus group interviews, students in the large classes reported that they “love the Physics classes because they’re actually good fun.” Rather than sitting silently and taking notes, students in peer instruction environments interact with their classmates to help make sense of the material.  As one student commented, “that’s when I learn the most. That is revolutionary.”

Mix it up. While peer instruction is one effective active learning strategy for large classrooms, there are others that work too.  In this article from Cell Biology, the authors share seven active learning strategies that can be infused specifically in large-enrollment classroom.  While the article leans heavily on science-related topics, the strategies can be successfully implement in almost any course.

Find what works for you. That’s the advice from Dr. Sallie M. Ives, the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching at UNC Charlotte.  She writes, “there is no one way to teach a large class. We have to take into account our teaching style, the characteristics of our students, and the goals and objectives of our course.” With these contexts in mind, Ives offers a Survival Handbook that provides practical solutions to managing the chaos that can sometimes occur in large classes.  Still need some help? Check out Tips for Teaching Large Classes written by Dr. Jenny Lloyd-Strovas from the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center at Texas Tech University.


Gains and losses

Dr. Rene Laennec is credited as being the inventor of the stethoscope. As legend has it, Laennec was trained to practice a medical process called percussion to examine his patients. This practice involved tapping on patients’ bodies and carefully listening to the sounds that echoed back. With some patients, however, percussion was hard to implement. For instance, larger patients presented a unique challenge for doctors since it was difficult to hear sounds through layers of skin and fat. It was in this situation that the stethoscope finds it origin. Examining a larger patient, Laennec reportedly rolled up a notebook to better hear the sounds. In 1819, Laennec offered this account of his discovery in a medical journal:

I was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”

Laennec’s simple cylindrical creation helped the percussive sounds be better heard and allowed him to better diagnose his patients’ ailments. The discovery led him to intensively examine different designs and to research how the sounds he heard related to different medical conditions. His study led to the creation of the modern day stethoscope and propelled it as a standard medical device used by doctors worldwide. Laennec’s invention undoubtedly saved lives and improved the practice and science of the medical field.

One could argue that Laennec was a great inventor and that he made significant contributions to medicine. But let’s dig a little deeper. Besides improving the way that medicine was conducted as field, Laennec also dramatically changed the way doctors interacted with their patients. To practice percussion, doctors would place their ears against patients’ backs, chests and abdomens. This close contact made seeing a doctor an intensively personal interaction. To further diagnose patients, doctors also conducted lengthy interviews with patients to try to uncover larger ailments and issues at play. Through these interviews, doctors got to know their patients and how they lived their lives. The stethoscope, however, created a distance between the doctor and patient, both literally and figuratively. Doctors could listen to a patient’s heart without placing an ear against them. Doctors could also diagnose some ailments without asking patients a single question. While the technology provided amazing benefits, it also significantly changed the way doctors interacted with their patients and dramatically altered how medicine was practiced.

So, what’s the point? For me, the big takeaway from this story is that we tend to focus on what technology adds to a situation. When a new app or device is introduced, we often can easily see how it can benefit our lives without really seeing the potentially negative impacts that could occur. In every instance of some new technology being introduced, however, there are both gains and losses. The story of the stethoscope provides one example. We can easily see how the device aided doctors’ work, but it also significantly changed how doctors interacted with patients.

Let me provide another example. I have a friend who has been deployed overseas several times. He serves in the military and returned recently from a deployment to Afghanistan. In previous deployments, he would send letters to his wife and children and would receive ones from them. Upon his return, the letters would be assembled into a scrapbook to document the family’s journey and sacrifices.

Returning from his most recent deployment, however, my friend remarked that he hadn’t sent or received a single letter. With email and Skype, the family was in contact regularly and really didn’t need to rely on handwritten communication at all. The family had gained the comfort of more regular communication with one another but had lost the documentation that the letters had provided. As his wife commented, “you can’t really scrapbook emails or a Skype call.” Gains and losses.

Since this is a blog about education, I guess it’s time that I try to bring it back to teaching and learning. We’re constantly being inundated with new educational technologies that could improve how we deliver instruction, interact with our students and assess their learning. While I’m an advocate for using technology in our classrooms, I also want us to raise a skeptical eye to the losses that emerge from the infusion of technology. Like the stethoscope, will these technologies create “a distance” that changes how we teach and how we interact with our students? Do any gains we experience outweigh the losses?

Teaching for Growth

Last week, I introduced transmission, transaction and transformation as different modes of teaching. As I got more to thinking about teaching as transformation, I decided to re-read James Lang’s chapter on “growing” in his book Small Teaching (2016). The chapter outlines three principles for teaching for growth that I thought would be a good way to build on the concept of “teaching as transformation.”

Design for Growth. When we develop our courses, it’s important to think about how we structure the semester to foster growth. One place to start is to examine your grading structure. Some instructors may think that offering equal weighting throughout the semester would benefit students. When you design a grading system for growth, however, you want to provide a time period to allow students to understand the structures, processes and ways of knowing that you as an instructor view as important. Offering low stakes assignments at the start of the class provides time for students to wade into the class and get acquainted with the content and with your teaching. I’m also a big believer in allowing students to resubmit assignments or retake exams to improve their performance. If a student wants to dedicate extra time to rewrite a paper or study the concepts more to do better on an exam, why would I stop them? I’m trying to get the best from my students. While I know that this may not be practical in every classroom environment or with every content area, embracing growth recognizes that students learn at different rates. One student may learn a concept in a day while another student may take a few weeks.

Communicate for Growth. In his book, Lang encourages us to examine how we communicate with our students and to consider how our language fosters students’ growth and development rather than focuses on their fixed abilities and talents. Think about that student who does really well on an exam. Should we praise them for their hard work or for their intellect? The difference presents a stark contrast in communicating with a growth mindset or a fixed onAnother place to examine how we communicate with students is our course syllabi. In many cases, it is students’ first impression of who we are as teachers and what we value about them as learners. I know that many of us are told to treat our syllabi as contracts and to communicate clear expectations in an almost legalistic way. As your preparing for the upcoming semester, however, consider how you communicate your expectations and how your language motivates students. Use your syllabus to encourage hard work and persistence.

Feedback for Growth. Providing constructive feedback on student work is one of the most time consuming task in our teaching roles. It’s also one of the most important. Our feedback can support growth and development or demotivate students. I remember taking an English class in my undergraduate program and receiving a “B” on a paper I had submitted. The professor didn’t include any comments and didn’t provide feedback so I could improve my writing. I visited the professor during office hours to discuss the paper, my grade and ways to improve. He said simply that my writing wasn’t “A” material and that I just needed to become a better writer. While both of these statements were probably accurate, neither helped me improve my writing or motivated me to do better. I left the office feeling frustrated and doubting my academic ability.

Looking back, that meeting could have gone very differently. If he had embraced the growth mindset in his teaching, the professor would have outlined areas of strength and targeted the problem spots upon which to focus. He could have pointed out some reference materials that I could read or shared some resources to help me practice. But he didn’t. I ended up getting a B in that class and still wonder how well I could have performed had I received better feedback from the instructor.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.