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"As Good as" Is Not Good Enough

Online learning can--and should--elevate the state of teaching in higher education.

This story appeared in the September 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

In July, the nonprofit research group Ithaka came out with perhaps the first really solid study on student outcomes associated with online learning, concluding that students can learn just as well in hybrid learning environments as in traditional classrooms.

It's certainly good news that colleges don't have to sacrifice learning outcomes if they move toward a blended model of instructional delivery, but I'd like to suggest that online education set a higher bar for itself than reproducing the achievements of traditional college instruction.

I don't think I'm speaking out of school when I say that college teaching can be notoriously bad--droning lecturers, mind-numbing PowerPoints, teaching assistants who can't speak English, researchers who resent having to teach.

But a lot of online learning experiences are not much better, offering their own versions of droning (video) lecturers, mind-numbing PowerPoints, and other forms of dubious teaching. The problems are further compounded by a delivery system that potentially allows both teachers and students to hide behind or get lost within it.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the one difference revealed by the Ithaka study was that students in the hybrid course enjoyed their class less than students in the traditional course. As a student wrote in a letter to The New York Times about a Stanford online programming course: "I started the program with enthusiasm, but I soon felt alone and unsupported. I had no one to impress or disappoint. I struggled to stay motivated. It was impersonal and transactional, and it nearly destroyed my [passion for math]."

The fundamental problem with teaching in higher education is that most institutions--mission statements notwithstanding--are not really set up to promote good teaching, whether it's face-to-face or online. With the exception of community colleges and some four-year liberal arts schools, most higher ed institutions base their hiring, tenure, and salary systems around scholarship and, in some departments, the ability to bring in research dollars. Good teaching is certainly desirable, but being a mediocre (or even poor) teacher is not a barrier to being hired or rewarded in most universities.

A CIO for a state university system recently challenged me on this statement, claiming that universities are much better at finding and promoting good teaching now than, say, when I went to college back in the dark ages. But when I asked him if institutions were actually doing anything to teach faculty how to be better teachers, he conceded that they were not.

Here's where I think the true opportunity with blended learning lies: In the process of designing and offering these new learning experiences, universities might actually teach their faculty something about good teaching.

Take a look at what Post University is doing with its Online Education Institute. As OEI president Francis Mulgrew writes in this issue (see "In Online Learning, Vive L'Evolution" [LINK TK]), online learning is "forcing us to look at what quality education means," and part of that involves "a new role for faculty as scholar-practitioners." But Post doesn't just cross its fingers and hope faculty can step into that new role. The university provides full-time instructional coaches, so faculty don't replicate the methods of the traditional classroom, but learn new instructional practices that research shows improve student outcomes.

So, my take on the Ithaka study is this: Hooray that online learning does no harm. Now let's see it do some good.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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