Magazine Article

A Teacher’s Take on Online Education

By Jeff Kolnick
Member, Campaign for the Future of Higher Ed
History, Southwest Minnesota State University

As a professor, let me weigh in on the debate about online learning. I’ve taught online within the Minnesota State University system every year since 2004. I am not opposed to online education nor am I afraid of it.

At a recent online panel discussion focused on best practices, there was a general consensus that with proper class size control and good pedagogy, students write more in online classes. This can help improve written communication skills, especially when faculty are vigilant about making developmental comments and providing opportunities for revision.

The online approach can widen opportunities for shy students to get involved in class discussion more easily than in face-to-face classes. It also cuts geographic barriers, which is better than no access at all.

Simply put, the upside depends on well-designed and rigorous courses with regular faculty involvement. This means frequent appearances in discussion forums and daily postings of one kind or another on top of careful evaluation of written work and time for one-on-one communication via e-mail when requested.

The downsides of online are many.

Super-high attrition rates are almost universal. Faculty have a hard time getting to know students, which limits mentorship opportunities and makes writing letters of recommendation difficult.

Pressure to increase class size leads to limited rigor and less writing, thus weakening the best part of online education. Online is particularly ill-suited to entry-level classes and remedial level work. Sadly, that is where it is being pushed the hardest by its advocates in government and in the business world.

Recently, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have become a major topic of discussion in my state after the University of Minnesota announced plans to offer them.

Generally, these classes are free (except for a nominal fee), open to anyone regardless of status at the school, and don’t actually count toward graduation.

However, the eventual aim is to use MOOCs at schools nationally to bring low-cost higher education to the masses while generating a profit for the businesses that deliver the courses. Policymakers across the country are falling over themselves, each eager to lead the MOOC charge.

So here’s one concern: How would this impact those at community colleges and less selective universities when online teachers suggest that small online classes and frequent faculty contact is essential for student success?

Duke University released a thorough study examining one of its MOOCs. Among the findings are the following:

COSTS—Huge investment of time (600 total hours, 420 by the faculty member).

SUCCESS—Over 11,000 enrolled and only 313 successfully completed the course.

WHO—Two thirds of the students who enrolled had a BA or advanced degree. Here are some questions faculty members, students, university management and even lawmakers should ask before fully embarking on this major investment of time and money:

  • Will MOOCs create a two-tiered system of education with wealthy people still sending their children to elite colleges and MOOCs for everyone else?
  • What is the success rate of students by different demographic groups for MOOCs?
  • What is the difference between transferring information and getting an education?
  • What are the demonstrated student learning outcomes for MOOCs?
  • What is the return on investment for a given university using a “business model” with limited revenue flow?
  • What have we learned? As we move forward with online education, it would be wise for policy makers to take advantage of, in our case, the hundreds of Minnesota faculty who have been doing it successfully for many years.
  • What are the attrition rates, the success of existing online courses at achieving learning outcomes, and the success of online education among different demographic groups?

Like any pedagogical tool, online education can be used effectively or ineffectively. Before we jump into the brave new world of MOOCs, we should study and understand them.

In the meantime, let’s reinvest in what we know works—affordable public higher education.

A version of this article appeared in The Minnesota 2020 Blog, March 13, 2013.