Friday, October 23, 2009

A Moment's Pause

Yesterday the Teaching, Learning & Technology Center at UC Irvine presented a session devoted to "Online Learning: Myths & Realities." In the age of severely limited budgets, online learning in higher education looks very attractive to campus administrators and educational researchers have long said that the traditional lecture format is poorly suited for many types of learners who need to be better engaged with subject matter. The discussion took off with the first mention of the May 2009 Department of Education report on "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies." Several faculty members contested the conclusion that "classes with online learning…on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction," since they actually argued that the data showed equivalent rather than better pedagogical works. However, many present were pleased with the report's praise for blended or hybrid learning as preferable to online alone instruction.

Unlike many such presentations, there was a serious attempt to offer more than boosterism. Organizers admitted that such courses may not save time, given expectations for frequent student feedback and updated materials, and that they might not always be cheaper either, since quality video and online design don't come cheap, even if the University of Phoenix boasts about its bottom line. Talk about higher attrition rates and a persistent digital divide, even among supposedly "tech-savvy" students also dampened enthusiasm. As a writing person, I would have liked to see more discussion of the limitations of so-called "self-grading exercises" to teach written composition, such as the Calibrated Peer Review system, which I have criticized in print.

Three faculty members from UCI taught these courses over the summer and shared their experiences with the group. Cell biology professor Diane O'Dowd argued that her teaching demonstrations were unlikely to be easily appropriated by other pedagogues and that good online courses were by definition non-generic, and that adopting the online courses of others was as ludicrous as being handed a syllabus and all the slides from a course with the expectation of an exact pedagogical replica. Her prior experiences in her large enrollment course Bio 93: DNA to Organisms were applied to the online version of the course, which was offered through the campus Distance Learning Center. She produced twenty-nine lessons, with professionally shot video of her talking behind a blue-screen backdrop, as well as an elaborate series of intros, wrap-ups, and other ways to develop activities, such as having students report their own experiences with long distance running before beginning a unit on hypernatremia. Although learning outcomes seemed to be good, she complained that students developed few peer relationships in the class and expressed her reservation that she was "not sure we are keeping them in the biology major."

In contrast, Michael Dennin has made his Physics 21: Science from Superheroes to Global Warming, which he had never taught before, available under a Creative Commons license that encouraged sharing. He also chose low tech webcam shooting for his video portions and creative forum moderation, where students grappled with issues like analyzing the California state budget, to develop their numerical literacy and to create lively in-class interaction.

Outside UCI classicist Maria Pantelia is probably best known for her work with the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, but on campus she teaches the popular course Classics 45A: Classical Mythology: The Gods, which she described as a frequently "x-rated course" in the antics of the Greco-Roman deities. Her original lecture slides were masterfully converted to richly illustrated Flash pages about the classical world, while she provided audio voice-over.

Note that all three faculty members worried about cheating and relied on on-site midterms and finals for much of the course grading.

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