The Pros and Cons of Online Courses

computer courses

I have been teaching in university settings for over 12 years now.  I have taught F2F, hybrid and purely online courses over that period and have observed the learning process for my students and my role in it all under all 3 conditions.   Over this time span I have averaged teaching 50 credit hours per year which means I have taught at or over 600 total credit hours of courses and have taught those courses within 5 different institutions ranging from state schools to private institutions to online for-profits.  Needless to say, I have lots of teaching experience.

There are pros and cons to all 3 systems but honestly I think my preference is the hybrid model, which entails some F2F and some online components.  If the newest research is correct, this may also be the model that exhibits the best learning outcomes for students as well.   But how best to compare these models?  I will discuss the online model commonly used by the for-profits here.

Pros of Online Courses (students)

1)   Convenience (students can literally work it into their schedules)

2)   Self-paced or asynchronous learning (within the confines of the course infrastructure)

3)   Self-motivation (forces students to be pretty self-motivated)

4)   Heavy reliance on group discussions (much learning can happen with good discussions but the instructor has to be present to really monitor and facilitate that process)


Cons of Online Courses (students)

1)   Lack of social infrastructure.  Students literally only interact with their instructors and fellow classmates.  No social interaction beyond the classroom so no diverse or differing perspectives on things they might normally discuss in dorm rooms or over lunch in the cafeteria. They can also self-select into just interacting with a few of their classmates in discussions further limiting their interactions.

2)   Collaboration is difficult.  Collaborative projects are doable, but difficult without a truly collaborative workspace.

3)   Self-motivation (successful students have to be pretty self-motivated and directed and there is no real way to facilitate that if they don’t connect with the material, instructor or class).  It’s harder to “connect” online because of the asynchronous nature since everyone is kind of fitting it into their schedule and their timeline, it can breed this sense of disconnection.

4)   Heavy reliance on standardized courses (for-profits).  Makes it really easy to cheat on just about everything because the classes are all the same.  If I were a really savvy student, I would keep everything from my group discussions to my papers to my tests and projects and sell them to a new student taking the same class at the same institution!  Because all the classes are “taught” by adjuncts and so highly outsourced, the likelihood it would be the same instructor is also minimal.


Pros of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Less energy goes into “teaching” because the instructor doesn’t have to “perform” for students like in a F2F class where the instructor constantly has to be enthusiastic and energetic to keep their attention.  This is why the online students have to be more self-motivated.

2)   Convenience (instructors can literally work it into their schedules)

3)   Standardized courses.  The classes are heavily standardized and pre-prepared for the instructor.  For some less experienced instructors or instructors who don’t really know how to be creative or adaptive in a classroom this works perfectly.  Little work goes into course infrastructure and set-up.


Cons of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Standardized courses.   For instructors who value creative license and academic freedom in the classroom, this is a negative because they are forced to use the pre-prepared course infrastructure.  They can work within the confines of that but really can’t deviate much since these schools want every student to have the “exact same experience”.  I think this is a big disservice to students.  It’s part of what makes the US higher education system the envy of the world.  The ability of every instructor to bring their own teaching style, expertise and creative license to the classroom and this is lacking in the for-profit online model.

2)   Time.  Although it’s convenient, to truly facilitate those online discussions in the classroom, it takes a lot of time to guide that process.

3)   Pay.  No one goes into teaching for money, that’s a given.  As an adjunct, few of these online schools differentiate between PhD’s and Master’s degrees.  And why should they?   The courses are so standardized being an “expert” is really irrelevant and meaningless.  They tend to pay the instructor per student so teaching experience doesn’t really matter either.  Still comparing my adjunct salaries between the brick and mortar non-profits and the online for-profits it does tend to be around 25%-35% less than the traditional schools pay their adjuncts.  It’s important to understand the adjunct salaries at traditional universities are also about 50% less than what a full-time faculty would be paid per course and there are far more adjuncts than full-time faculty at most universities these days.  Welcome to the outsourcing of higher education.

So let me just add a couple of caveats here.  I think we do have a negative perception of online learning, and I am not sure it’s correct.  In my experience, in every type of classroom setting about 25%-30% of students are motivated, driven, organized, structured and eager to learn, online or F2F.  These students will be successful regardless of the platform.  About 50%-60% will do okay because they are kind of interested, kind of motivated….maybe they have to work full-time or have families and other responsibilities, but they will do okay…again, regardless of the platform. It’s more hit or miss, but overall they will get through the class okay.   Then there are the students in the 10%-15% that just struggle for any number of reasons.  Lack of motivation, lack of time, other stressors….maybe they just aren’t ready for college or just aren’t interested enough.  These are the ones that get lost in the online mechanism.  There are no fellow classmates to support them, to help them study or bump into them on campus and remind them of class.  There is no social infrastructure of support.  These students will struggle, alone really.  Most of the online schools have implemented online tutors, advisers, etc… but it may not be enough but it might not be enough in the F2F environment either.  So really, it is about the same statistically between the 2 learning models.  Which is why I really like the hybrid model best, because it catches the pros of both environments and minimizes the cons of online learning particularly for both instructors and students.  It would be nice to see this model implemented more frequently although perhaps not as logistically convenient.

Poverty: The Real Problem With Education

Old Faithful

I participated in a Twitter conversation (although calling it a conversation is difficult for me since it requires 140 characters or less to communicate) via #edchat on the role poverty plays in education this week.  I don’t even know how this topic is debatable given the immense amount of research published on the role socioeconomics play in everything from health to health care to education to mortality (which is influenced by health and education), etc…

So some of the conversation revolved around making access to technology (which apparently is the solution to every problem these days) the answer to resolve the discrepancies between the impoverished and the affluent.  No, we should provide breakfast (which most districts already do and lunch by the way too).  There was even what I think was an architecture firm talking about how we need to create safer school environments (build them of course at the taxpayers expense).   No, “we should be the change we want to see in the classroom”.   OMG, really?

I suppose I should praise anyone who remains remotely optimistic in the face of what we need to do to begin to address all of this, but nah, why ruin a perfectly negative attitude.  I suppose I should explain why I have such a negative attitude about this at all….being well-educated and from a middle class family.  I grew up in a fairly rural area with a great deal of poverty.  I attended school (public of course) with students who had very little.  Poverty is a problem because the environment outside of the classroom is just as important, if not more important, than the environment in the classroom from a learning perspective.  As there becomes a larger divide between socioeconomic classes in the US, the access to resources beyond the school system start to make a real difference.  The affluent have it.  The less affluent don’t.  Those foundational barriers make a huge difference in the classroom when it comes to learning and success.

My partner works in a fairly affluent school district teaching second grade.  Some kids are on the free lunch program, but not a large percentage.  Many of the families are pretty affluent and they care about their kids learning and are already concerned that a poor assessment in second grade might keep their child out of Harvard.   They have access to multiple resources: after school sports (which or course cost money to play), music, ballet, dance, chess, tutors, museums and aquariums, national parks.  They have Internet access at home and probably their own computer.  They travel, a lot, both within and beyond the US.  Their parents are educated, hold white-collar jobs, they eat well, they play sports, they work hard and they are expected to go to college.  Many of them even attend their own cultural schools on the weekends.  Do they deal with stress outside of the classroom?  Yes, they are still kids.  Their parents still fight, get divorces, they deal with bullies. They actually have a lot of pressure to perform well on tests and excel in their activities.  Too much pressure really.  But they have a huge support system both within and beyond the classroom setting.  My partner is an outstanding teacher.   She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Their parents hold them to a high standard too.  In the long run, that plays a bigger role in their success than anything my partner does or does not do in that classroom.  Most of these kids will be successful because of their access to resources and support systems beyond the classroom.

My sister works in a poor district in rural NC. Most of those kids are on the free lunch program.  Most of the families are poor.  Mostly blue-collar jobs in the area but most of those jobs are gone now.  Unemployment is very high.  Many of the parents likely completed high school, but few attended college.  Many don’t have access to resources outside of the classroom: no sports, no chess club, no ballet or dance classes, no private music lessons.  They don’t have access to museums or aquariums, unless they travel to a large city.  They don’t travel much.  They can’t afford to.  They may have access to the Internet at home but probably not their own personal computer.  They don’t eat well, probably not even every day and they certainly don’t shop at Whole Foods because well, there isn’t even one within 50 miles and they couldn’t afford it anyway.  Their parents care about them, want them to succeed and do well in school.  Some probably want their children to go to college and push them academically, many don’t or can’t.  Harvard not being the goal, the local community college is far more realistic. Which would be great if they can make it there.  They don’t have access to private tutors. Their everyday experiences, their foundations are the polar opposite of what my partner deals with on a daily basis. My sister has to do daily lice checks.  Call each kid up to her desk and use a comb to look through their hair for evidence of lice.  The teachers always buy extra clothes to have available because there are always kids who come to school in the same clothes for days and the teachers provide new clothes for them.   Sometimes they even have to wipe them down with Wet Wipes because they haven’t been bathed in days.  She has kids whose dad is the local drug dealer and is in and out of jail.  These kids come to school as an escape, a safe harbor for 7 hours.  They worry more about survival, the basics: shelter, food, clothing.  Learning becomes secondary under these conditions.  My sister is also an outstanding teacher (and social worker too apparently).  She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Do these students “learn”? Absolutely.  She is no different than my partner when it comes to being an outstanding teacher, however, the children she works with on a daily basis are very different.  Their foundations are different because their access to resources outside of the classroom are different.  Let’s not kid ourselves either.  The resources are different in the classroom as well because so much of education is district dependent and depends on tax levies and local fundraising. Schools in poorer districts also have access to fewer resources than the affluent ones, compounding the inequities.

So shouldn’t schools be the great equalizer?  Maybe they used to be when we had a middle class, but as the socioeconomic divisions grow, so does the educational gap. I find it difficult to believe that the affluent and policy makers in this country don’t understand this.  They do.  But instead of addressing the real problem, which is poverty and lack of resources and the growing socioeconomic divide, they just put more pressure on an already broken system without adequate funding to support the policies and infrastructure. This just leads to more of a division between the affluent and less affluent districts because now they have to fill the funding gap.   Hmmm, I wonder which socioeconomic group those policy makers fall into?

“Those Who Can’t, Teach”

teachers desk

I really dislike that quote.  We have all heard it.  It’s disparaging, it’s demeaning and it’s bullshit.  Teaching is a skill, it’s a passion; it’s something that really cannot be measured and has little to do with test scores.

There are really great teachers out there, those it really seems to come naturally to.  They easily connect with their students, they read levels of comfort and discomfort in their students, and they know when to push and when to ease up on their students when it comes to learning.  They know how to reach each individual student and they make an effort to do so even though their varied and overwhelming responsibilities both in and out of the classroom don’t really allow for it or support it.  They know how to manage a classroom and in the k-12 space, how to manage the parents.  They want to see their students learn and grow and they find a way to make it happen, usually at their own personal expense and time of lost sleep, fretting, pedagogical trials and errors, numerous meetings with specialist, parents, principals and other teachers.  They spend their own money to supplement classroom supplies and often on some students who can’t afford their own personal supplies.  They are creative, energetic, and passionate.  They work both in and out of the classroom: planning, preparing, grading, and organizing (the stuff that goes on beyond the classroom but has everything to do with what goes on in the classroom).  These are teachers.

Why does anyone teach?  I mean, really think about it.  With the myriad of choice available today, they don’t do it because they can’t do anything else.  They do it as a choice, because they want to teach and to make a difference in a child’s life.  I don’t personally understand why anyone would choose this.  I couldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t last 5 minutes dealing with the parents or the kids.  With all the bullshit they have to deal with on a daily basis: the parental politics, the school politics; as the kids get older, the attitude and entitlement.  I can barely handle the politics of a university setting and it’s not nearly as brutal as the k-12 space.

Oh I know why people choose to teach.  It must be the prestige.  No, maybe it’s the salaries and the fact they must like picking up second jobs just to make ends meet.    No, it must be the eternal gratitude of the parents and the kids themselves.   Maybe it’s the rallying support of a nation that values and appreciates all that teachers do to try to educate our future generations under the pressure and policies of an increasingly industrialized system, with limited resources, overflowing classrooms and sometimes overcrowded buildings that are falling down around them.  That must be the reason.

No, with all the potential job choices out there today, you have to want to teach.  You have to have a calling to do it.  You have to be passionate about it and damn good at your job. You have to be willing to sacrifice yourself, your time, your energy, a decent living and work in a system and country that refuses to treat you like the professional you are because you desperately want to make a difference.   Because there is no other reason any sane individual would choose a teaching career.  Teachers are overworked, underpaid, undervalued and under appreciated.  I am not saying every teacher is perfect.  There are some bad teachers out there.  What I am saying is that most teachers are doing the very best they can for their students with limited resources and increasing external pressures. Yet, all we can do is bitch and point fingers.  Way to go America.  Way to go.