Thursday, May 19, 2005

A critique of: Is totally online....?

Today I'm going to critique my own post from yesterday. In other words, I made the argument but I don't necessarily buy the argument. I will begin by continuing to focus on the demand side. Then I will switch and discuss the supply side.

When I was 40, though I didn't realize it at the time, I began to switch careers, from economics faculty member to administrator of teaching with learning technology. The process had fits and starts but for most part it has been a gradual transformation. I've certainly learned a lot running SCALE, then Director of CET, and now Assistant CIO for Ed Tech. There was no formal education associated with this transformation. It was learning by doing, learning by talking with peers, learning by attending conferences (though I feel close to tapped out on that one now) and learning from an assortment of reading in a hodgepodge fashion.

My experience provides one observation that formal education is not necessary for career switches. That is not sufficient to generalize from. So let me make the point differently. Many employers would rather teach their employees on the job than to rely on what those employees learned in their formal education prior to working. The reason seems obvious - then the firm knows what it's getting. The formal education is used more as a passport to get in the door. But for someone who has already had a job, been successful at it, and was well regarded in that capacity, the employment history can serve the passport function. The value of another degree is much less. My belief is that many career switches can and should be accomplished without bouts of formal education in between.

Two years ago I did get some rigorous professional development from the Frye Leadership Institute. This is a two week, highly intensive, program that is held on site at Emory University. It is jointly sponsored by Educause, the Information Technology professional organization, and by the Council on Library and Information Resources. Most of the attendees were either IT professionals or Librarians with a smattering of faculty and other administrators also in attendance. I learned later that getting into Frye is highly competitive. The attendees are being groomed to be the next CIOs, University Librarians, or Provosts. We ate meals together, did small group work together, attended presentations ensemble and were variously challenged and provoked by an assortment of very high caliber speakers and guests as well as by the two deans, Deanna Marcum and Rick Detweiler. With the exception of Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times, who at the last minute couldn't come and so did his session by video conference, all other sessions were face to face. (Steinberg talked with us two days before the Jayson Blair fiasco became front page news and it was Steinberg's byline on the article on the front page of the Times that told the story. That experience only added to the aura of Frye.)

We have used a listserv for our Frye class to keep in touch post institute. It was very active the first year. It has almost become extinct this past year. I do keep up with several people I met there by regular email and we meet at conferences and communicate then. But these are add ons to the core experience. Frye was an expensive, immersive, and transformative two week experience. It was also face to face. My view is that when you look for the creme de la creme of professional development activities, they will be face to face. I think that even Frank Mayadas of the Sloan Foundation, probably the biggest proponent of learning online that we have, would agree on this point. Sloan supports a summer workshop for the top practitioners in the field where they share current research under the Sloan "Five Pillars." The workshop is held at a swank resort in a very comfortable setting and is, of course, face to face.

The point here is that for maximal commitment to learning and total engagement of the learner (meaning the conversations during the breaks in the hallways count as much as what is discussed during the actual presentations) face to face wins. Face to face in this sense is also clearly more expensive and blocks access. Totally online, in contrast, is flexible and thereby promotes access. Intensive, face to face offerings held at swank facilities represent the gold standard in continuing education. Totally online is much more blue collar.

I believe that the gold standard form, though far from utilitarian, casts a disproportionate net in its influence on how instruction is held. The analogy is to the research university and the net it casts. Non-doctoral institutions often have stern requirements for faculty publication in order to achieve tenure or promotion. Why? If the job of the faculty member is primarily teaching, what is this concern about research? But it clearly is there and that is because that is how the best (the doctoral degree granting institutions) assure quality of their faculty. In other words, this trickles down from the top. And that trickle down effect has a big impact on demand. If face to face is perceived as of higher quality, that's what will be offered in professional development programs.

Of course there have been programs with spectacular numbers of totally online students in them. The ones I know about are the SUNY Learning Network, University of Maryland University College, and University of Central Florida. But what of the students in these programs. Are they of the caliber of students who'd be admitted to a graduate program at the University of Illinois? I don't believe we will ever associate the big number online programs with the educational elite in the way Harvard Business School is so associated.

Now let me turn to the supply issues. Is continuing professional education supposed to be getting students acquainted with the most current research in the field? Or is it supposed to be a form of apprenticeship from experienced practitioners in the field? The two are quite different and likely would be taught by different faculty; the former would be taught by research faculty while the latter would be taught by clinical faculty. Can both types of faculty co-exist at the same institution? Perhaps, but I doubt it. In the main the research faculty populate the research universities and the clinical faculty populate other non-profit universities or work for places like University of Phoenix. There are some areas (though I think the areas are limited) where the demand is for instruction that teaches the current research. So there will be some of this done, possibly totally online. I believe there is much broader demand for courses taught by practitioners.

This doesn't mean there will be no totally online professional education. It just means that the major research universities are likely to be on the sidelines in this industry. And in my opinion that is likely to remain the steady state. The only factor that I see which might upset this equilibrium is if the labor market were to no longer value highly the undergraduate degrees from these institutions. Those undergraduate degrees are a core business of these institutions, even if research is king. It will take a significant dent in that core business to upset the existing order.

Much of higher ed is hurting now due to economic factors. The primary reason is that state governments seem reluctant to contribute their historical share of the cost of education. This doesn't mean, however, that the core business has been hit. The primary effect on demand is with lower income students. They may not attend and hence less qualified but better able to pay middle or upper income students will be admitted. This is extraordinarily unfortunate as it will severely curtail the upward mobility of the poor and working class. But this factor, in itself, will not drive research institutions toward post-baccalaureate continuing education, online or otherwise.

Now I want to consider a different issue on the supply side. This pertains to improving quality of instruction. Are we at or near the quality frontier on face to face instruction (which includes "Web enhanced" courses)? Or are there many improvements that can be made? If the latter, is this simply a matter of instructors not applying known best practice? Or is it that such quality improvement is an applied research that must happen in situ by the instructor teaching the course? My view is that we are frequently far away from the quality frontier and that situational learning by the instructor is needed to move us closer to the frontier.

Instructors need encouragement to engage in such an applied research (and, frankly, junior faculty should not be so encouraged because it will lessen their chance at tenure). Perhaps the greatest form of encouragement is to learn of colleagues who have done likewise, making interesting modifications in the way they teach in response to the learning issues they've encountered in previous offerings of their courses. Innovation in teaching with technology begats other innovation through the charisma and appeal of the early adopters as well as the art of their creations in teaching with technology.

When I got started there was a large cohort of creative faculty who did precisely this. They made substantial changes in their teaching because of technology and then grew coattails from their own efforts. We are not seeing a new generation of instructors emerge to become today's pioneers in instruction. Part of the reason is that in departments where there is a systematic focus to promote the use of learning technologies, attention has turned to totally online instruction. This is true for both the College of Education and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The totally online teaching offers minimal spillovers to the face to face alternative.

In my view the top of the food chain in teaching with technology is really good instruction that produces engaged learning. To get there we must hang together, lest we suffer the fate that Ben Franklin predicted. And the issue of whether our efforts should be directed toward face to face or totally online should be dictated by where we think our students likely to be.


Burks Oakley said...

Lanny - Hi! I just have to comment on your latest posting. You wrote "Face to face in this sense is also clearly more expensive and blocks access. Totally online, in contrast, is flexible and thereby promotes access. Intensive, face to face offerings held at swank facilities represent the gold standard in continuing education. Totally online is much more blue collar."

Yes, I agree with you 100%. But there are so many adult learners in the country who cannot afford the "gold standard" - they can't afford the higher cost, and they don't have time in their busy lives (work and family responsibilities have to come first). That is why online learning has so much appeal to this audience.

While F2F might be the "gold standard", more and more professional development is being done in a blended fashion. Even the Sloan-C summer workshop is blended - we have been working asynchronously in Moodle for months, and we will have much of the "work" done before we arrive at the workshop in mid-July (in Victoria, BC, Canada). You might want to look at some of Elliot Masie's recent thoughts on all this. See:

And while many of the adult students enrolled in online degree programs at other institutions (such as UIS) wouldn't have been accepted by the Urbana campus as freshmen, they still have need for a college education (and the upward mobility that comes from having a college degree).

You also wrote "The totally online teaching offers minimal spillovers to the face to face alternative." I disagree with this 100%. Certainly the faculty at UIS who teach online courses have re-thought the teaching and learning process, and they now are using technology with their on-campus classes, and moving away from "lecturing" in the classroom.

Just my two cents worth on a dreary Friday morning.

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks -

I am just back from the Faculty Summer Institute. This morning's session on "usability" (a better term than "accessibility") was excellent. One significant point made is that usability must become a mainstream idea and thereby impact not just people with disabilities, but everyone. Our featured speaker, Norm Coombs, added that just about everyone in the audience will in the not too distant future become senior citizens. Issues of visual impairment and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome will plague many of us and we'll all want our Web pages and other software programs to be be usable.

With that as analogy, I'd ask whether providing access to post baccalaureate continuing education (a decent education at a decent price that can be obtained by anyone so inclined) is mainstream.

The answer, obviously, is yes. I grew up in NYC and my mom, during the period when she was teaching high school (late '60s through mid '70s) attended Queens College at night to earn her Masters Degree in French. Perhaps 20 years earlier she had earned her Bacherlors Degree from Columbia University, School of General Studies, fairly soon after she arrived from Palestine.

Urban campuses have been in the business of providing access for years. But I would ask further whether that business is part of the core mission of the university or if it is a sidebar. My sense is that at Queens College it was central while at Columbia it was a sidebar.

If access is central, then that the university has a big push in online learning makes sense and in that case I'd expect to see substantial spillover from totally online to face to face instruction. If access is a sidebar, then a push in online makes less sense.

One might argue that universities which have been in the access game as a sidebar should move to make it central because of the demographics and online technology enabling that to occur. My belief is that the business argument is not there yet, for the reasons I articulated in the posting.

At my university, which is both the land grant university in Illinois and the home of a significant Extension Service, one might argue that access really should be central. But those efforts are dwarfed by what we do in residential undergraduate education, where the rule is selectivity, not access, and that is all the more true for the professional programs.

Here there are some colleges for which totally online is strategic, the Leep program in Library School being the most obvious, but totally online is not strategic at the campus level.

One last point, which is what motivated the postings originally. It would be helpful to have a classification of various degrees of maturity within the instructional mode that is charaterized as "Web enhanced." One can and should envision getting from an early stage to a more mature stage while still having both a face to face component and an online component to the course.