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People Who Need People

Recent efforts to try online education have shown that [weaker] students are the ones who most need a teacher or professor in the classroom to help them, said [Janet] Napolitano…

The president of the University of California says the obvious: In almost any form, online ed ain’t much good. It’s especially pointless (and expensive) for the people the for-profit tax syphons go after most aggressively: Those most in need of a good in-person education. Our most vulnerable, most badly-served, remedial students.

But Napolitano goes beyond this.

The courses are also proving difficult for those trying to meet lower-division college requirements. Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.

And franchement, if you’re deeply engaged in a subject, you’ll just feel insulted by the online treatment. By definition there’s no intensity, so real interaction, no subtlety, available in this format. That’s why in many courses almost everyone drops out:

[A] study released late last year by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education showed that only about 4 percent of those who register for an online course at Penn complete it, even though the courses are free.

Margaret Soltan, March 26, 2014 1:00PM

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10 Responses to “People Who Need People”

  1. Laura Gibbs Says:

    Wow, I normally enjoy your blog a lot, but this ill-informed dismissal of online education is really disappointing to see. There is as much variety in online education as there is in the classroom, good, bad, and everything in-between. I’ve been teaching fully online writing classes for over ten years and I would never choose to go back into the classroom, the main reason being that it is only by teaching online that I can work effectively with ALL my students, from the most excellent writers to the ones who are struggling with every sentence. It seems that you don’t know the difference between MOOCs and other kinds of online courses… and, moreover, you apparently don’t know that you don’t know the difference. For what it’s worth: there is a difference. A massive difference.

  2. charlie Says:

    The book “Academically Adrift” chronicles the lack of academic rigor at American universities. Basing their research mainly on CLEP exams, the authors found that nearly 1/2 of college students had learned nothing in two years, 40% had learned nothing after four. So, Laura, based on that, and the fact that unis are massively underfunding their liberal arts departments, can you explain why putting a class on the internet is going to reverse the collapse of college academics? What’s makes the computer so magical, when the brick and motor version sucks?

  3. Laura Gibbs Says:

    Charlie, I did not claim that the computer was magical, and I disagree with your claim that brick-and-mortar classrooms suck. What I said in my comment was that by teaching online, I am able to give every student the instruction that matches their individual needs. When it comes to writing, the range of skills in a given undergraduate class is enormous. In a classroom, I am not sure how I would work effectively with a group of 25-30 students (I teach three online classes per semester, each with appx. 25-30 students), some of whom are struggling to write an error-free sentence and some of whom are planning on careers as professional writers. The teaching of writing is badly neglected in American college and universities for many reasons, and it seems to me that the differentiated instruction of online classes can allow us to do a better job of helping our students – all our students – to improve their writing.

  4. charlie Says:

    Laura, the issue is what’s taking place on brick and motor schools, which degrade academics. Since you seem not to understand the issue on the ground, I would strongly advise you to become familiar with the research of the profs who wrote “Academically Adrift,” the latest reports furnished by the OECD, which document that Americans between the ages of 16-24 are dead last in math/science academic achievement of the top 22 developed nations, and the results of the NYAG Andrew Cuomo’s investigation of financial aide fraud at non-profit universities.

    In short, the brick and motors are allowing students who have no business on their campuses to enroll, at ever growing rates, because they get kick backs from the loan originators, and those loans furnish the collateral for all the ridiculous campus buildouts. Point being, if the administrators could care less about academic quality, then it’s profs such as you who will deal with the fallout. And if the admins could care less about academic achievement, then why the hell would putting a class on a ‘puter make any difference?

  5. Laura Gibbs Says:

    That would be “brick-and-mortar,” Charlie. If you think about it, “brick and motor” does not make a lot of sense, does it? As for Academically Adrift, I’ll just point out that the so-called writing assessment component of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA (not the CLEP, as you wrongly state) is graded by computer. That’s a non-starter for me. I do agree with Margaret Soltan’s original contention that people need people, and I don’t think that robograding or robo-assessment of student writing is going to help us solve the real problems we face with writing instruction in our colleges and universities. I explained in my previous post why, for me as an instructor, being able to teach online is a great opportunity. It sounds like you have already made up your mind about this issue, though, so I am not going to keep repeating myself.

  6. Derek Says:

    Charlie —
    Academically Adrift is, to say the least, problematic and most people (I’m not saying you) seem to have only read or understood half of it.

    Why it is methodologically problematic: It is based on a test that students do not have to take. Furthermore, it is based on a test that assesses freshmen versus seniors. And while if you put a test in front of freshman during first days or whatever you call them, they will take it, you’ll have a fairly large and broad sample, and that is maybe of some use, I guess. Assuming you think this test is an end all and be all worth even two shits (I’m going to dispute whether it is even worth a single shit). But then these results are assessed against the results of seniors who simply do not care. They don’t have to take the test. Universities try to bribe them, but the test is not going to count for a single thing in their lives. They walk in, take the test and their t-shirt or check for $50 with which they were bribed, they half-ass their way through the test, and walk out, oftentimes in just a few minutes. because, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it does not count. And this one test, taken twice, via multiple choice is our big evidentiary standard? Sorry. I’m calling some major league bullshit on this.

    Buy the irony is that when we here in the UT system heard our Regental overlords and others trying to use “Academically Adrift” as a cudgel to pass their Rick Perry agenda, it was obvious that they had not read the book, because the book’s conclusions go against so much of the corporatization of the modern university: basically, de-emphasize schools of business and education. Imagine that! When I asked one of the Regents who cited “Academically Adrift” as a sort of secular bible to rage at faculty whether we were going to de-emphasize undergraduate business and education schools he looked at me like I was crazy. When I pointed out that this was the suggestion of the very book he was using to slam faculty he was first stunned, then he simply walked away.

    I don’t want to hear this crap about how the “brick and mortar” version of college sucks. We’re a country that allows people the freedom to succeed, but with that comes the freedom to fail. That students fail is not necessarily the fault of colleges that allow them that privilege, and reductionist idiocy like a blanket condemnation of the work that so many of my colleagues and I do is not much help.

    As for online instruction, let’s just say that while I am happy to let my colleagues try it and would never tell them how to teach their classes, almost all evidence does seem to point at it not only being inferior to the in-class model, but it also does not seem to fulfill its promise of providing access to poorer students so much as to a lot of students who just cannot be bothered to pitch up to class but who can afford a laptop and iPad and cell phone and the illusion that they can work anywhere. But it does seem to work for some students and faculty, and for those, I suppose I’m ok with it even if I will remain skeptical.


  7. Laura Gibbs Says:

    Derek, agree with you about Academically Adrift (see my comment above about its use of robograding for the writing portion, ugh) – but disappointed in your sweeping dismissal of online education. Essentializing online education is just as silly as essentializing classroom-based courses; if I judged all university education by the typical cattle-call lecture course (still the bread-and-butter of undergraduate courses in many schools), I would have a poor opinion of classroom courses. But I know that classroom courses come in all varieties, just as online courses do, and the determining factors are things like class size, pedagogical strategies, viability of the faculty position (fulltime v. parttime, courseload, etc.). Dismissing online education as being of poor quality is very short-sighted on your part, when the real issues are the factors I just listed. At my school, the online course program was created to increase student access to General Education courses that are critical to students being able to graduate on time, and it has been very successful in doing just that. Your comment about iPads and cell phones is a red herring, and insofar as online classes can make extensive, easily integrated use of free online resources, they are often much more affordable than courses with expensive textbooks. I hope you can direct your skepticism to concrete problems (use of poorly compensated and overworked part-time faculty to teach all kinds of classes, both online and in the classroom, for example), rather than a vague and undefined sense of doubt about online teaching per se.

  8. Derek Says:

    Laura —
    As I say, I do not tell my colleagues how to teach and I expect the same courtesy. I know that some do it well, and they should be allowed to continue to do it well. But increasingly that courtesy is not being granted to the rest of us, where there is constant pressure to go online, or for our new hires, who sign on contingent on their developing online courses, no matter what the rest of the faculty in a department might say.
    I’m just telling you what the increasing reams of data seem to imply, which is that online education is not a panacea. And you can accuse me of all of the red herrings that you want, online ed does not increase access for the most vulnerable populations, who don’t of course have laptops or guarantees of access to internet off campus — it’s great that the resources are free, but if they don’t have the computer or the internet access, how useful are those things, exactly? There is a reason why at my institution, an HSI, our freshman class this year has, for the first time, a majority of Hispanic students in face to face classes while our online classes are majority white.
    And by almost every measure online completion and success rates don’t seem to match those of face to face. Maybe they will eventually match face to face totals. I don’t know. But American higher education became the envy of the world for a reason and we’re letting alleged tech innovators with investments in the outcomes dictate policy irrespective of what we need or want or think is best as faculty.
    As for these colleges and universities where large lecture courses are the “bread and butter,” I’m curious where these colleges are. Are there really lots of universities where upper division courses are being taught in large lecture formats? If so, yeah, they are failing their students (or may be failing their students; I hear a lot of education people prattle on about lectures as an inherent evil.) But you need to convince me that these places exist as anything other than straw men toward which you clatter your keyboard.
    I’m also curious — how many of the Ivy League or elite SLAC’s are offering online, say, history classes? because I have to say, I think we’re creating a bifurcated model where there is one system (face to face) for the best of us, and then mass producing online ed for the rest of us. When Steven Mintz came in to the UT system with his “Institute for Transformational Learning” he sold us on his bona fides by telling us that he comes from the best history department on planet earth at Columbia. We could quibble, but there is a case to be made for that claim. He is now down here in the UT System peddling transformation in the form of more, more, more online classes. Do you want to know how many online history courses were listed in the Fall 2013 catalog at Columbia? The greatest history department on earth? That would be zero. That, some might say, is a tell.


    Oh, and as for my skepticism and how I direct it, I think if you ask just about anyone on my faculty, where I am completing my third and last year as president of the faculty senate, you’d find that I’m a damned good advocate for all of our faculty and I don’t need your lectures on how to address “concrete problems.”

  9. charlie Says:

    Sorry guys, the authors used CLEP exams, followed up with other research, including interviews and studies from other academics, regarding the quality of college education. From all of that, it’s apparent that universities have simply given up rigor, because the students themselves are telling anyone who would bother to listen, that they don’t need to work hard to graduate. Your interpretations of the CLEP efficacy mean little when, in fact, the actual students are asked what they do with their time, what is asked of them, what they need to do in order to pass their classes. In that context, it becomes apparent that the results of CLEP exams are entirely consistent with what students are reporting, their classes are entirely devoid of the discipline needed to learn anything. This is precisely why the colleges do not emphasize education/learning as a marketing tool, but rather, talk about the college experience. They’re attracting far less competent students because they cannot mass market their product unless they do so. And it’s becoming apparent that the marketing campaign is coming to a close, because more states are now saying to their public unis that they cannot have remedial courses. Ohio published the results of a study which stated that 40% of high schools grads needed remedial math or English, and the state spends over $130 million/year on remedial courses for college students who aren’t prepared. Given all that, AA is far better at speaking about the problems with college students than either of you two.

    And, of course, neither of you bothered to answer the other points that I raised, that being, university financial aide corruption, nor the OECD testing results of 16 -24 year olds. In the case of the latter, USAAmericans are at the bottom of the top 22 developed nations in math/science achievement, and are second to last in literacy. Despite that underachievement, the US has the largest percentage of its citizens in college, or with degrees, than at any time in its history. I would think that folks such as you who are committed to defending the status quo would ask why? Because you’re so committed, you really can’t, so I’ll do it for yass. Because as the authors of “Academically Adrift” have pointed out, the unis could care less about academics and are in it for the money, which is precisely what then NYAG Andrew Cuomo found out, the unis are making money allowing far more students, whether capable or not, to enroll. No justification exists for the explosion in student populations, other than what I outlined, and whether it’s brick and MOTOR, or on line, that corruption isn’t being addressed. So whether you want to hear it or not, brick and motor sucks because the folks who are running it are running a scam, Derek, the NYAG’s report underscores the criminality. And it’s ridiculous to think, Laura, that jamming a classes on the net is gonna do anything to change the corruption found in academia.

  10. Laura Gibbs Says:

    Derek, I never said online education was a panacea, but it is a real way to increase access to education. Think about transportation and child care, which are both barriers (HUGE barriers) to students’ ability to attend classes on campus, along with all the usual time constraints of the rigid scheduling of campus-based courses. If you are not aware of all those factors that limit many students’ access to the classes they need to graduate, then I suggest you go talk to some actual students, especially older students, student parents, working students, etc. Those are the students most interested in taking my online classes, and I am glad to be able to assist them as they work towards their degrees while balancing so many other obligations and responsibilities. And spare me your generalizations about completion rates: my classes have 95-98% completion rates. Why? Because the courses are a reasonable size, because they offer lots of flexibility, and because the courses are designed to support students individually. It’s about the QUALITY of the course, and online courses can be equal in quality to any face-to-face course.
    Unfortunately, however, many faculty at my school share your prejudice against online education, regardless of quality, so online courses are in very short supply. Our students need more of them, but until faculty set aside their prejudices, we’re not going to have enough online courses to meet the demand. My university does offer lots of large lecture classes; it’s hardly a red herring – and it sounds like you saying that it’s alright to subject undergraduate students to large lecture classes so long as upper-division courses are smaller…? Talk about subjecting the most vulnerable students to the worst form of instruction because it is cheaper and more convenient for the school. Ouch.

    Charlie, I’m not sure why you are invoking the CLEP. The Academically Adrift book is largely based on the CLA, the Collegiate Learning Assessment. CLEP is something entirely different. You can find out more about CLA here; they do not hide the fact that they use robograding for the written portion of the exam:

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