• The Trouble with Thinking Inside the Box

    In a recent NYT editorial, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson makes an argument for how online education can never equal or excel traditional in-class instruction. Among his arguments are the idea that an in-class teacher can get a sense for how students are reacting to content and whether content delivery needs to be modified to adjust to student reactions and abilities, in real time. In addition, a live professor can also give a lot of value-added content … answers to questions on the spot, conversations after class, philosophical discussions with engaged and enthusiastic students. This is something that, apparently, can never be done in an online setting because … well, I’m not exactly sure why. There are no inherent limitations to “online” that prevent these kinds of interactions from taking place. He can’t imagine how online interactions can ever equal or excel physical classroom interactions. But I can.

    Dr. Edmundson makes the very valid point that a great class is like a great symphony … the basics are there, but it’s up to an instructor/conductor to really make this unique composition shine. A class works (or doesn’t work) as a result of the interactions between students, other students, and the instructors. But he mistakenly argues that this dynamic can only be found in a physical classroom. His argument is that online courses are a one-way conversation and that’s all they ever can be. The only two-way communication possible is e-mail, and it’s asynchronous. But that hasn’t been the case for a long time (at least in the world outside most universities’ online curriculum “solutions”). Discussion boards are an obvious way to create some back-and-forth. Video conferences are another way, as are live chats. These can actually be more effective than spontaneous hallway conversations because they can be recorded and accessed at a later time by both the students who engaged in the initial interaction as well as those who didn’t, allowing access to the information in that interaction to a wider audience than is possible in a physical setting. In addition, through these methods, the audience, and the conversation, can be expanded to include friends and family of interested students, as well as colleagues and experts known to the instructor, making the learning a broader community effort. E-mail is not the only way. But unfortunately, very few online courses utilize these rich possibilities and they are all the poorer for it.

    I like to describe most online classes as “set it and forget it” classes. An instructor records his or her lectures, uploads homeworks and exams, and maybe if he or she wants to get really creative, creates a question bank so that there are many questions and the exam can be reused for a few years. But this method isn’t really effective even in a physical classroom, so why would it work in an online environment? At the moment, online education is what early cinema once was. When the movie camera came out, early movies were essentially theater productions but on film! It took a while before someone thought “Oh, hey! Screw these cardboard props, I can take the camera outside and use the whole world as my stage! Also, special effects!”. Using a camera and editing software today to tell a story is a work of art and an industry almost completely independent of theater. Today’s online classes suffer the same myopia … they’re traditional classrooms but online! Of course they’re not really good, if they’re done that way! They’re courses-but-online, not online courses. They’re not digital natives … they’re imported. Courses-but-online come with the familiar limitations of physical classrooms … you must listen to lectures, you must complete assignments, you must contribute to a discussion, you mustn’t use the internet to find the answers to the exams, you mustn’t chat with other students during the exam. Why not? This is the information age! Information is cheap and ubiquitous. Online courses that pretend otherwise are going to be terrible by default.

    My and Ariel Anbar’s project of the past two years has been Habitable Worlds, and we’re building a digital native course. Having already run it twice, we have been surprisingly successful not just in creating a great online science course, but in engaging a level of student interest and enthusiasm that I haven’t seen even in some of the classes I’ve taught in person (and those are many at a variety of skill levels). I will admit to being initially skeptical about building an online course. Part of what I love about teaching is the student-teacher interactions and the classroom dynamic. How do you replicate that online? Learning management systems give options for “hallway conversations”, but these are little more than threaded discussion boards that haven’t been popular since the early 2000s. They are clunky and make following a conversation difficult. We used one for the first semester as a help board and found that it quickly became too unwieldy to manage. But students wanted to engage. And we faithfully managed the boards and responded as often as possible, often several times an hour, often at 4 AM, often during our lunch hours. We actually had a number of surprisingly dynamic conversations. Students were shocked and pleasantly surprised at how involved the teaching staff was. Students want this. Online education these days is all about minimizing this, because it’s cheaper to create a “set it and forget it” course. But we should be moving in the opposite direction. Putting all our content online frees us for more student-teacher interaction, not less.

    Habitable Worlds has three major features that make for a superior online classroom experience. Our lessons are built using Smart Sparrow‘s platform (our partner in crime), which allows us to create dynamic and adaptive content. The platform provides us with real-time analytics that allow us to see where in the exercise students are working, what they’ve tried, and what they’ve done up to this point, both as individuals and in the aggregate. This allows us as instructors to get involved at a level that is impossible using generic worksheets, homeworks, or quizzes. A student who is stuck doesn’t need to tell us what they’ve tried … we can see what they tried, how many times they tried it, what they tried next, and how long they took between tries. And it allows us to provide much more targeted support. In addition, we create a dynamic discussion using searchable and taggable discussion boards. Here, students and instructors can up-vote good comments and helpful advice, and all of it is searchable by students who are late to the game. They can see what conversations have previously taken place, often about the very problem that they are having. The instructor no longer has to repeatedly give the same guidance individually as each student streams into office hours one by one. We also have weekly live video broadcasts with interested students. These are recorded for students who can’t attend or who for some bizarre reason want to watch it again. We’ve chatted with students about how to solve difficult problems in the assignments, the philosophy behind the course, the reasons activities were structured the way they were, science in the news, the science behind the science in the news, and sometimes ridiculous things like “What if you sent a color-coded message to an alien that can only see in infrared?” The students loved it and the attendance at these sessions, both live and in replays, grew as the semester progressed. We even live-casted from AbSciCon, where we got young researchers in the news as well as more established names to talk with our students (not “speak at” but “talk with”). These are all possibilities that are simply impossible in a physical classroom, at least the way they are run now.

    So does it work? Well, anecdotally, here are some of my favorite student comments from the Spring 2012 offering, which featured 100+ non-science majors:

    “I just wanted to thank you all for the awesome course! I just remoted into a couple of the AbSciCon talks and was amazed that I actually could understand what was being discussed. […] This is what I hope for in a subject that I go in having very little knowledge – to […] learn enough to be able to read articles and listen to people talk about the subject and understand the vocabulary they use, and the concepts they discuss and write about. So many new things I learned in this course!”

    “I have taken quite a few online courses, actually all of my classes for the last three years have been online and this was by far the most interesting and well designed course so far. It was so interesting and fun that my wife and 13 year old son were sitting beside me most of the time, cant say that for any other course I’ve taken.”

    “This was honestly one of my top three favorite courses at ASU and it has absolutely nothing to do with my major. Like I mentioned before, I had more interactive with my professor and TAs than in an in-person class. They were always very responsive and VERY knowledgable. I felt comfortable talking with them in the live chats.”

    “This course was much more interactive than any other course I’ve taken online and it really added to my interest in the subject. I also really appreciated the ability to interact online with the instructor and TA’s. Of the 10 online courses I’ve taken so far – this has been my favorite. It increased my interest in chemistry and biology which is a major feat.”

    (Of course there were complaints, but they were usually along the lines of: “this was harder than an online class ‘should’ be”, which shows that this in-the-box thinking isn’t limited to just faculty; and “this course was too short”, which shows that students will want to learn more if they are properly engaged, even in an online setting)

    So you see, the problem isn’t that online courses are bad … it’s just that most instructors aren’t very good. But that shouldn’t limit the infinite possibilities of online ed.