Online Education: Just Like Regular Education, Just Online-ier

It’s the last week in August and I’m back in the classroom. (And back to blogging regularly!) School started on Monday, and suffice it to say that we’re all a bit rusty. Add to that the fact that I’ve been away from teaching for a year, and there are a lot of cobwebs to clear.

For teachers everywhere, the start of a new semester is also a time to revise assignments. Most of the time we’re iterating in order to refine and increase the effectiveness of the things that we do to engage students in the process of critical reflection. Sadly, sometimes we’re just figuring out ways to assign things that will be harder to complete by plagiarizing.

And these days, we are all under a lot of pressure, what with the current surge in articles heralding (or reflecting on) the end of the university at the hands of online education. We are currently in the midst of a surge of excitement of the prospects for digitally mediated learning spaces. Some of this makes sense to me from the standpoint of learning. There are so many more people going to college today—both in terms of numbers and diversity of background—than when the predominant model of the university was developed, it seems more than reasonable that some re-visioning and innovating is in order. (Heck, I’ve never taken or taught a class of more than 35 students, so I don’t know how people even do that!)

Yet, some of this surge in interest seems to me to be little more than hype; glowing reports that treat for-profit ed PR copy as fact and energetic defenses of innovation that owe more to American faith in scientific progress than understanding of the practice, business, or social construction of education. The general sense in the press these days is that online education is universally excellent and essentially free of all of the problems that beset contemporary higher education.

I’ve been wondering how long it would take until the media began to report the other side of the story: that the same problems that we encounter offline happen online too. Over the last couple of weeks, the other shoe seems to have dropped.

On August 16, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the not-so-shocking news that

Students taking free online courses offered by the startup company Coursera have reported dozens of incidents of plagiarism, even though the courses bear no academic credit. This week a professor leading one of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses posted a plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing…

So not everyone taking online courses is a self-motivated person who is driven to learn despite the many obstacles placed upon them by the education-industrial complex? Imagine my surprise! (Sarcasm aside, I am surprised that someone would bother plagiarizing in a non-credit bearing course. What’s to gain? ) This week, Coursera has added an “honor code” prompt during the paper submission process:

GigaOm reported that companies are starting to use plagiarism prevention systems like Turnitin, just like many offline universities. But are also doing things that seem much creepier to me:

To keep students honest, a number of startups use digital tools to monitor student behavior, including their keystrokes and activities online. In online exam environments, for example, companies like ProctorCam allow people to proctor exams virtually via Webcam.

Some students, it seems, need that watchful eye to keep them honest.

In addition to admitting that some people are academically dishonest in online classes, the press also reported that not all professors for online classes are perfect. The Chronicle reported that:

Udacity, a start-up company offering free online courses, last week canceled a course, “Logic and Discrete Mathematics,” that was due to begin this summer, saying the lectures and materials it had prepared on the topic did not live up to its quality standards.

It’s good that Udacity had the facility and freedom to pull the course shortly before it starts. At a standard university, you can’t just cancel a class on students at the last minute, lest they be left without sufficient classes to maintain conditions for financial aid or athletic eligibility. Being online and free, you can do that. At the same time, it is notable that Udacity (a) demonstrates that it does have some pedagogical standards and (b) not every class can meet those. When online ed goes huge, can every instructor or assistant be a genius? What will Udacity do when it is no longer in the position of being able to cancel classes?

So, what is one to make of all of this? Well, it seems to me two things. First, it would be helpful to admit that a course is not necessarily a valuable learning experience for all people solely by virtue of being online or MOOC. Indeed, an online class can be just as much of an exercise in “getting through it”—either on the part of the instructor or the student—as an offline class. I’m all for figuring out new ways to engage in education, but we need to be honest with ourselves all along the way.

Second, in figuring out how to do mediated instruction well, we are eventually going to have to deal with the distinction between education as instruction and education as formation. Operative in many of the discussions of MOOCs is that school is all about pieces of information and the discrete skills necessary for manipulating that information. Learning physics, for instance, is primarily a matter of understanding formulas, concepts, and operations—all of which exist regardless of the community in which those are acquired.

The formation approach to education suggests that there is more to education than instruction in information. In part, education is about being a part of a community of discourse that contextualizes information. More importantly, it is about developing parts of the self beyond simply intellectual skills. There is so much more to learn in life besides facts and operations! Who am I? How do I relate well to those around me? What is of value and how do I uphold those things? What do I love and how do those things help me become my fullest self? What am I not seeing in my-self, -community, -nation, -world and how can I become more aware of those things? What fills me with awe and how do I help bring that awe? What don’t I know about myself, and how can I learn it? In the tradition of the Jesuits that have trained me and now employ me, that kind of attention is often referred to as cura personalis, the care for the whole person. That, it seems to me, in what education is all about–forming one in personhood.

Now, I’m not trying to say offline universities always do this, or that education as formation is impossible while taking MOOCs. Before people went to college as a matter of course, apprenticeships provided this kind of formation. Perhaps one is taking classes online while part of a strong and supportive community that can also engage students on what they are studying. If so, great!

What I am saying, however, is that we need to think about these things. It seems to me that writers on ed tech tend to say things like “all that stuff outside class is great, but lots of people don’t need it or can’t afford it.” The problem is, I think we all need formation within a community that help us understand the value and use of the facts we learn. We need help understanding what we need to know to be good citizens and good people. To yank information out of the broader process of becoming people will pull us up short. There are certainly ways that we can use mediated instruction to help us become. We just need to focus a bit more broadly and figure out how to do it.

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