Don’t give up on online education
Recently, the faculty of Arts & Sciences voted to terminate the Semester Online program for undergraduates. We are the three Washington University professors who actually taught courses in this program. We write not to restart the debate over this program but rather to continue the discussion of online teaching in general. Hopefully, such discussion will continue. Indeed, some of the critics of the Semester Online program stated at the last ArtSci faculty meeting that their criticisms were not directed at online education per se but rather at the current arrangement with Semester Online. Given that, we thought it would be useful to offer the lessons we learned from teaching in this program.
First, we state explicitly that all three of us got involved in this program with our eyes wide open. We were not biased positively or negatively going in and we honestly did not know if it would work or not. Further, we have little if any financial stake in whether or not this program, or some alternative, continues in the future. All three of us thought teaching online courses would be an opportunity to try some new technology that is getting so much attention throughout academia and wondered if it would be beneficial to the educational experience.
Second, we want to be clear as to what these courses look like. They are not MOOCs, the massive open online courses that allow anyone to come in or out as they please, which are getting so much attention in the media these days. The Semester Online courses are hybrids wherein students register and pay as they would with an on-campus course but then take the course in the following way. Each week, a student is expected to watch to about 80 minutes of taped online materials (lectures and/or demonstrations, with built-in formative assessments) and then participate in 80 minutes of an online discussion section with roughly a dozen other students and the faculty member. They can take exams, do exercises, carry out problem-based learning exercises and write papers as they would in standard courses.
Third, the obvious question is whether or not students can learn in this format. We answer, unequivocally, yes. All three of us were satisfied that online students learned comparable amounts to students taking on-campus courses. All of us did pre- and post-test surveys to assess knowledge gained and found the results to be quite satisfying. In the fall semester, Lowry taught the same class online as he taught on campus. The knowledge gains for the students in the two different formats were not only substantial but nearly identical.
Fourth, another obvious question is whether or not the students themselves found the online courses to be a satisfying experience. Again, with the help of CIRCLE, we did course evaluations that were even more extensive than those offered to on-campus students and found strong levels of satisfaction. In fact, some online students stated explicitly that the online discussion format enabled them to have even more personal interaction with professors who are often facing classrooms with 100 or more of their peers.
Fifth, does the online format enable more innovative teaching? Again, all of us were intrigued by the possibilities. As with face-to-face courses, the online discussion sessions allow role playing, debate, group work and other class activities. Students can use their Internet connection to build models and maps or explore a wide range of cases and databases. We have found that these activities can be successfully guided by faculty during live sessions and can deepen engagement with the topic. Students can share their results with the rest of the class with the push of a button. Students can be separated into different working groups within separate “rooms” with the push of another button. Student assignments can be uploaded so that classmates cannot only view the work but blog about it. The instructor can quickly move between the classroom discussion format and sharing documents or the desktop.
Ultimately then, what we can say definitively is that, based on our experience, online education can work. The faculty who opposed this program raised other questions regarding Semester Online and the company, 2U, involved with the program. In all honesty, all of us had very positive interactions with the people at 2U. They were professional, responsive to our concerns and quite respectful in all of our interactions. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that some questions about this program, about the contract with 2U and about online teaching in general still await answers. We hoped those questions would be answered with the experience that would be gained from two more years of the program and the inclusion of other courses. Since that is no longer possible, we encourage further discussion and development of alternative programs to develop online education that could be beneficial to our students and to the educational endeavor in general. We hope our lessons will be useful in those deliberations.