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Rethinking Online Education - Building an Online Future PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Instructional technology assistance varies from campus to campus, but most online faculty must develop course content and design as well as produce, edit, upload, and maintain it. The labor-intensive aspect of this effort can intimidate as well as pull one away from scholarship and service requirements, which tie directly to merit evaluations, tenure, and promotion. For many faculty, walking into a classroom and lecturing (or leading a discussion) uses skills they already have, consumes less time, and offers clear boundaries for student interaction.

Pedagogically, however, the online world offers all kinds of opportunities that capitalize on what a faculty member should be. The “flipped” classroom is instructive here. If you set up experiences that convey the essentials, your time with students gets spent not talking “at” them, but rather engaging their questions, exploring their concerns, working on their writing and communication, and serving to help them not only to understand the kinds of information they access, but also to analyze it critically and thoughtfully. You truly become a resource in their academic experience.

For me, it yields interesting days. Students work more in the evenings (not to mention late nights) and many also want my time on the weekends. I know now that early morning check-ins take care of the overnight concerns, and I have long stretches during the “typical” workday for writing, service work, and other obligations. Limited discussion windows mean high activity during the prescribed hours, but not as much outside of it. “Office hours” for paper writing assistance or questions can occur almost anywhere and anytime with tools such as Skype, Google+, or Face Time.

The format of the academic semester, however, feels antiquated. Instead of my normal 3:3 load meaning 3 three-hour courses taught over the course of sixteen weeks, it would be a far better use of the format to do 3 five-week courses taught consecutively over the same period. Online learning lends itself to intense bursts of effort more typical of a J-Term, Maymester, or summer school. Students also perform better in this arena when focused on fewer subjects over a limited period of time. Particularly with general education courses, it serves key goals. Students get a “taste” of a subject and the ways it is studied within a discipline, but they also get the opportunity through extensive interaction to relate it to other courses and get a feel for the interdisciplinary nature of our efforts.

We all know, however, that our institutions are not designed to think of faculty working this way, nor are university business processes set up to accommodate such changes. The advantage here goes to for-profit and experimental start-ups that can deploy resources more nimbly and encourage innovation. Universities also need to prepare to reward faculty willing to take risks and acquire new skills, because learning to work differently and to develop great content and design takes time, energy, and effort away from what departments typically expect of their faculty.

Online learning does not suit every student temperament and certainly will not be the choice of every faculty member. It does, however, reach out to populations that residential and commuter programs do not reach (as well as to students within these programs who need alternative scheduling) and offers the opportunity to use technology creatively. Unfortunately, the structure of most traditional higher education limits innovations by tying online classes to clunky learning management systems, poor faculty development, scheduling straightjackets, and no effective tools for peer or course evaluation by people who understand both the academic discipline and the online possibilities. Of even greater concern, this type of education does not work well with the demands of a tenure and promotion track. If senior scholars do not enter this world, too often it gets left to adjunct faculty who are not supported adequately and can be overwhelmed by the load they must carry. All of these issues must be addressed by any school wanting to move forward in this arena with integrity.


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