Saturday, April 12, 2014

Online Degrees: a Disaster for Education

I’ve not posted in this blog for a long time, though I’ve had many interesting experiences in the past year.

I’ve always been opposed to online education for the purpose of awarding a degree, because quite apart from the serious limitations on interaction with students, you don’t know who’s doing the work.  I smile at the extraordinary naïveté of people who say that online students do better in comparable classes then seated students, so online classes must be successful. The reason they get better grades is that it’s much easier to cheat in online classes. Most online classes don’t even consider the possibility of cheating, they simply ignore it. Or at most the instructors say “they’re only cheating themselves,” which is also extraordinarily naïve. In fact there cheating all the other people trying to get degrees, because they’re getting a degree the easy way, and in our litigious society a piece of paper, a degree, has become very important in getting hired.

You pay for convenience, and correspondingly lose efficiency and quality.  Education should not focus on “convenient”, but that’s what we’ve done as it is treated more and more as a commodity.

In Continuing Ed classes, whether there is actual CE credit or not, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the work as long as someone is doing it and learning something. Nor is it necessary to grade people in continuing education, grades are an artifact of earning degrees.

This Dilbert strip amusingly summarizes the obvious problem with online degree classes:
As it is copyrighted I cannot show it on this blog.

But I bit the bullet and tried, after being recruited more or less by one of the big online degree providers, one whose advertisements you’ve probably seen multiple times. This is a normally accredited university in the northeast that likes to say that they’re not-for-profit, although in fact they make a huge profit on their online classes that they plow into their campus. I went through a four-week course for instructors and discovered that they did not want teachers, they wanted cheerleaders and robotic graders.

First, the instructors had no influence over the form or content of the class.  This doesn’t work well for me as I’m accustomed to making up the entire contents of all the classes I teach, and I’ve taught dozens of different classes over the years. Also the likelihood that there are “instructional design specialists” who have a clue about game design is next to nil.

Second, I am really suspicious of situations where supposed “instructional design specialists” create classes instead of actual teachers. The specialists certainly don’t know the topics very well and I suspect often don’t know teaching very well.  They’ve learned techniques and research, but that doesn’t make them teachers.  This reminds me terribly of the big problem we have an education in general, that somebody comes down from a university to tell high school teachers how to teach, yet that person has never taught at that level and perhaps at any level, and spouts all kinds of ridiculous notions as though they were fact. I have yet to hear a good word from any experienced teacher who’s taken education classes at a typical college or university; the representative reaction is to stick a finger on their tongue and make a gagging motion.

Third, the university tried to apply general grading rubrics for all classes, yet even in the class I was taking they did not fit well and there were contradictions between assignments and rubrics.  The grading standards of the course contradicted the grading standards we were told everyone had to follow.  In general there rubrics amounted to requiring students to regurgitate what they had read.  They were not required to think or to do anything original. In other words we were back to memorization and training rather than understanding and education. The “teacher” was supposed to robotically apply the rubric in the name of uniformity with the result that the “teacher” could do nothing to ameliorate the bad effects of the generic rubric.

The cheerleader part came in the online discussions where a great deal of emphasis was on encouraging students so that they wouldn’t drop out of classes (and cost the university money, of course). I recognize that a certain amount of encouragement is necessary for the current generation, and perhaps even more online; on the other hand, college should be much like the real world, and in the real world you don’t get that kind of constant encouragement. Insofar as the rubrics meant that much of the discussion actually didn’t affect the grading - because students really were only required to regurgitate - there was actually no reason for the students to pay attention to the “teacher” beyond encouragement.

The generic rubric not only discouraged any kind of creativity or critical thinking, it left instructors in a situation where a very high proportion of grades could turn out to be A’s.  When the highest level of requirement is “do what you’re told and regurgitate it,” it’s pretty easy to get an A.

So what we had was generalized pablum even within the class I was taking, and I suspect the same thing happens in the actual degree classes. People pay their money, they do exactly what they’re told, as a result they get good grades and they get a degree: but what they learn is limited and they don’t learn much of anything about thinking.

(I suppose I should interject: to me, education is about learning to think and to cope with and function in the real world, where you won’t have anyone setting up your problems or holding your hand.  The common notion these days, however, is that education is about conveying “knowledge” or even “content”.  No.)

Just as K12 has become training rather than education - memorizing and regurgitating rather than understanding - this training orientation is coming into colleges and universities via online “education”, which is really online training. Training has its place in the world: for example soldiers only need to be trained to disassemble and assemble their weapons, they don’t need to understand the details in order to keep them clean. But soldiers are there to do what their superiors tell them to do (though it used to be, at least, that American soldiers were also supposed to think for themselves; I don’t know if that’s still true).  But I’ve always been a person who wants to understand and explain why things work as they do.  (Which is one reason why I’m not attracted to young children the way other people may be, because children at many points just need to be told what and not why, and I want to treat everyone like an adult and explain why.)

Online education reminds me of the typical big university lecture where hundreds of people listen to the lecturer, who never learns their names and possibly never even grades any of their work. That’s left to teaching assistants who may be graduate students or even undergraduates, who are working in a job and aren’t necessarily really interested in teaching. The lecturer provides a sort of oral book. (Someone once told me that she had a friend who “taught” game design to 500 people per class. No, that person didn’t really teach anyone, they provided an oral book.)

(I was fortunate: in my college and graduate education I was only once in the class of more than 25 or so people, an astronomy for non-majors class. But it was not so large that I couldn’t go and talk to the professor if I felt the need. And that was 40 years ago when college “education” was much less a commodity than it is now.)

So a big university class amounts in many ways to a very expensive oral book. What I’m providing in my new online classes is a sort of oral book, though with some exercises, where people can learn as much or as little as they are willing to. But it actually costs about the same as a commercial (non-textbook) book rather than a comparatively very expensive university class. I don’t provide the piece of paper, but I’ll bet I provide a much better actual education in game design topics than most of the university big lecture classes ever do.

Books can teach, people do learn from books, and nowadays it’s probably easier for people to learn from oral books than from written books. But neither is anywhere near as effective as having a good teacher in a small face-to-face class.  Moreover, I can teach game design from my book or online classes better than anyone can in a seated class if they don’t know game design; an awful lot of people teaching game design in colleges and universities don’t know it, for a variety of reasons.

The “flipped classroom” is a big point of emphasis in education today. The idea is that the lectures and readings are done outside class, and in class students actually DO things to learn. I always tried to do that is a teacher, so it’s nothing new to me; but it’s almost impossible to do online.

After the experience of that class for teachers for that online institution, a disaster from a school that is trying to do right rather than simply taking a profit (for example Phoenix University), I decided to pay attention to my reservations and abandon the idea of teaching for-degree online classes. But soon after on LinkedIn I saw a reference to a place called, checked it out, and started creating classes for it, which will be the topic of the next post.


Game design institute said...

Very true! Pursuing degrees online is very confusing, though the classes are face to face its not convenient for the students to interact with the tutor!

Game Design Institute said...

Still in search of online degrees with reduced cost but unable to find the best online course with effective cost.

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