Online Education’s Biggest Problem

The biggest problem online education has is online education. But, it’s getting better – a lot better.

Like all new things, online education went through the me-me-me stage. Closely followed by the awkward “Yikes, I did do that?” stage. Finally we seem to be saying: “Oh, that’s what you meant.” and “No that’s not quite what we meant.”

Phew. Online education is now able to ask students what they would like to learn online and; more importantly, ask how they would like to learn it. And we are better at hearing students say “the video was worthless” or “why did you make me buy that book?” Yes, we are asking, listening, hearing, and changing! Some of the things we’re changing are:

  • How we present courses
  • How instructors interact with students
  • How we assess learning

Overall, we see the learner as busy, yet very interested in learning. We know that the value of the instruction has to be communicated clearly and delivered in a respectful manner. Now, that wasn’t so difficult – was it? Hey we’ve only been doing online teaching for about a decade or so.

Yes, over a decade of not-very-good-teaching. I would like to personally apologize to all the folks who put their hands over their eyes and turned away screaming from their monitor. Come back and give online education another try. We want to teach you. And, I believe we are prepared to do a much better job.

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Starting From Scratch

A popular conversation-starter among educators is: “If schools did not exist, and you were asked to create them. What would they look like?”

The attraction of a question such as this is that it bypasses the idea-blocking fact that we do have schools. We cannot create them. We must change them. So, the power of the question is that it effectively sets that fact aside. It removes the idea-blocker that we need to change what we currently have.

When considering this question, there is a first leap that most educators make. And it’s quite a big leap. Most folks choose to leave the physical structure behind. Yep, if they can start building a school from scratch – it would not be a building. It brings to mind an economics professor I had who leapt onto his desk one day and shouted at us: “A market is not a place!” I’m sure that single message was imprinted on every one of the 150 or so stunned undergrads in the auditorium-classroom.

So, a school is not a place. Oh yeah, better finish the economics story. A market exists wherever and whenever you have a buyer and a seller. Put this in educational terms and you have: a school exists wherever and whenever you have a teacher and a learner.

There is another idea-blocker we can remove through our comparison of markets to schools. Visualize the participants in a market, both have something of value to offer. Right? Perhaps one has a used car and the other has paper money. I suggest that while we are throwing the “school as a place” idea-blocker out, let’s also shed the “one person giving knowledge to another” idea-blocker. How does your visualization of a school change if you see both parties bringing things of value to school?

If school is not a building. And, it’s not the act of one person giving knowledge to another. Then, what is it?

I will leave you here because I think we should ponder that for a while. As you ponder, I suggest you consider the meaning of the word “knowledge.” And ask yourself: Is it possible for one person to give knowledge to another person?

Does Online Education Measure Up?

First, what are we measuring it against? We could compare online and on-ground success rates. However, that would require us to define success. Something we will need to address in a few (or, more realistically, a few dozen) blogs in the future.

For now, let’s make things simple and define success in university-level learning as completion rates. (I’m sorry to say that making it simple by using this definition is very popular approach.)  Education is a success if a student enrolls in a course (online or on-ground), participates through to the final lesson, and earns a passing grade. Easy, right?

Actually, it is an easy calculation, and it’s pretty accurate. Students are very effective at telling us when they’re unhappy with their educational experience. They just drop-out. And presto, we have a completion rate.

It gets less easy when we ask: “Why does a student choose to drop-out?” And go by further asking: “How do we design courses so students will want to stay to the very last lesson?” Those are the million-dollar questions.

Let’s take a step back from the abyss known as drop-out rates and consider some good news. Actually, it’s very good news that folks are asking questions about drop-out rates. We are finally moving away from statements like: “Some people aren’t meant to be college students.” We are finally realizing that through statements like that we are really saying: “We are unable to help some people learn.”

Yes, the drop-out rate among college students is a failure rate. Universities are failing to teach people.

Now let’s do something about it.