Well, yes, but there’s what economists call the price-cost margin. If distance delivery of course X is half as effective as live delivery, but only one-fourth as expensive, then distance delivery is more efficient. Inputs matter as well as outputs.
“Actually teaching” is part of efficiency, rather than something distinct from teaching. Brick-and-mortar universities make the tradeoff Peter Klein notes all the time. One-on-one live delivery is probably the most effective method of ensuring that each student masters the material, but Mark Hopkins on one end of the log and one student on the other is expensive. So you put Margaret Soltan on one side of the table and 10-30 students on the other side, the individual student outcomes might not be as good, but the value added is still positive and the benefit-cost ratio is higher. The case I think you’ve been making the past few years is that the cost of online delivery is low, but the benefits are approximately zero (where the receivers are supposedly logged on, but doing social network instead, or where the receivers hire proxies to give the impression of being logged on).
Sorry, to say that half of a course for half of the price is equivalent to the full course for the full price is absurd.
What we are doing is offering a Walmart education to those who take courses on line and a real one to those smart, lucky, or rich enough to get the real thing.
And then we send the Walmart educated person out to compete with someone who had a real education?
If a degree is merely a credential and is only used for screening purposes, then this might not matter. But ceteris paribus who would you hire if you wanted maximize the probability for success of a new employee, the Walmart product or the other vendor? Would you hire an electrical engineer or a nurse who had an online degree?
“If efficiency, rather than actually teaching anyone anything, is your standard. . . .”
Margaret, this is a totally false dichotomy. Teaching can always be better or worse, on the margin. You can always invest more or fewer resources in teaching (or any activity). If you teach a class of 30 students, rather than 5, does that mean that you don’t care about “actually teaching anyone anything,” on the grounds that you could always have a student-teacher ratio of 20-1 or 10-1 or 1-1? Of course not. It simply means that resources are scarce, and have to be allocated among competing uses. Investing “too much” in teaching a particular course or subject or student is irresponsible.
I take your point, Peter. But I’m not really arguing, if the subject is onlining most of a university’s courses, about degrees of value in online courses. I’m arguing that by definition online is so inferior a mode of teaching that it should not be chosen. It’s worse than herding 500 students into a lecture hall and having some ghost-like creature at the front of the room show PowerPoint slides and then ask students to click responses.
So it’s not about decisions about resource allocation in teaching. It’s about fundamental decisions about how you are going to teach — like human beings, face to face, or like machines – anonymous instructor to anonymous student (as you know, there’s no way to verify the identity of any student taking an online class — or for that matter for the student to verify the identity of the instructor).
Margaret, I’m still not convinced that “in-person” and “online” are two discrete modes of teaching. For years I taught a hybrid course for professional MBA students that was part live, part distance. In my regular, on-campus courses for undergraduates I supplement in-class activities (lectures, discussions, groupwork) with blogs, wikis, and discussion boards. If I have to miss class I might show a video of me or someone else speaking on a particular topic. I’ve conducted office hours via Skype. It seems like a continuum to me.
It’s true that online identities can be faked. But so can meatspace ones. I’m sure Joseph Ellis’s students thought they were being taught by a Vietnam vet. Do you really know everything that’s important, pedagogically, about your students?
Of course tacit, in-person communication is different from communication via electronic means. But you’re mixing the medium and the message. Every form of person-to-person interaction has benefits and costs. Let’s not rule out all forms of distance communication without examining whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
Peter: Plenty of research is going on comparing in-class and on-line (and adding hybrid as well) in terms of quality, outcome, benefits, costs, etc. You and I know that this research will be mixed in its results, and some of it will be quality research and some of it will be crap and we are going to have to wait awhile before we get anything reasonably solid on this important subject.
In the meantime, we must do what we can — keep up with the research such as it is, read things like Rate My Professors, read student newspapers, see what trends are emerging among professors in regard to class technology, and so forth. We must also use our reason and our instinct. We must ask ourselves, as veteran teachers (I’m one, and I assume you’re one) what seem to us better and worse ways of teaching our students. Because while we wait for research results, real students in real classrooms — and real bedrooms and dormrooms — either get educated or fail to get educated.
My instinct, for instance, tells me that your hybrid course is probably a mess. You’re taking a bunch of already distracted, multitasking people, and instead of giving them a focused, linear, ever-deepening understanding of a subject, you’re giving them a pastiche — we’ll do a bit of this, a bit of that… It’s the way professors proceed when they’re convinced that Americans today can’t pay attention to any one thing for any period of time.
More than that, in putting yourself very much in the shadow (the course is about screens, groups, blogs), you resign your identity as a professor, as someone commanding a classroom, holding and maintaining a conversation by means of your presence, your rhetoric, the personal seriousness about and investment in a subject that you convey when you assemble, week after week, serious people to talk about serious things.
What do I know pedagogically about my students that you don’t know? I know who they are. You don’t. They don’t know who you are either.
Joseph Ellis lied about an aspect of his identity, but seems to be a brilliant and informed teacher, and is undeniably a great scholar. He won a Pulitzer Prize. After apologizing for what he did, Ellis was punished by his university, and has now been reinstated. Ellis did not list “Joseph Ellis” in the catalog copy next to “Professor Teaching this Course,” and then send one of his grad students or his fishing buddy to teach it so that he could go to Bermuda. You, however, are quite free to do this in exclusively online courses.
OK, I think we’re just talking past each other at this point. You see a bright line where I don’t. I’m interested in changes at the margin that can make my teaching more effective, while making the best use of resources that are available. “Good teaching” is, to me, a heterogeneous thing, and varies widely according to circumstance. I also care about making education, in all its diversity, available to people who for whatever reason aren’t able to be full-time students at your or my or Joseph Ellis’s university. What they get may not be a perfect substitute for a four-year program at Princeton, but it may be better than the alternatives available to them. A Hyundai isn’t a Mercedes, but telling people they can’t have a car unless it’s a Mercedes seems like a mistake to me. But we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
Peter makes some very good points – I don’t like on-line tutorial in the main but given the reality that many who wish further education may not be able to attend in person, thank goodness they have the ‘virtual’ option. As for pedagogical effectiveness, as Margaret indicates studies will be done and though they will be of varying quality (with divergent conclusions) some obvious weaknesses and strengths will no doubt emerge.
However, it is a shame Margaret then abandoned her tentative conclusions about mixed teaching method by exclaiming, “My instinct, for instance, tells me that your hybrid course is probably a mess.” No evidence to support the condemnation just a gut feeling that someone approaching education in manner not completely consistent with her own must be providing a sub-standard product.
Perhaps for the sake of your students you should climb down from your pedestal of omniscience and engage your students through multiple methods in the knowledge that you may not know “who they are” nor what works best for them.
“[T]he more options available to parents and students, the better,” writes the Washington Post in an editorial defending this country’s scandalous for-profit colleges.
You, David, seem to take the same “multiple methods” position in defense of online education in general and the hybrid/mess model that many online courses take.
It’s a curious position. It’s rather like Michael Jackson’s doctor explaining that since Jackson had trouble sleeping, the doctor decided to make every option available to him, include Propofol. The more the merrier.
The we’re expanding options approach is enormously popular in defenses of substandard and – in the case of (mainly online) for-profit – corrupt education. Just as popular are righteous attacks on professors as arrogant. Shoddy educational techniques seem to bring out the populist rhetoric.