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A different line of reasoning suggests that a wholesale transition to on-line education is an economic imperative. I’d like to briefly address this argument in this aside.
While there are obvious savings from the reduced need for bricks-and-mortar classrooms, there are reasons to doubt whether the economic advantages are truly as great as often touted. For example, one of the true and great advantages of the on-line format is that it can increase the amount of interaction between faculty and students, especially those typically too shy to participate in a live classroom. But such discussion is itself time-intensive, and sets a hard limit on just how scalable this model is. There are only so many students at a time with which an instructor can carry on quality, enlightening discussions. Theoretically, the resources to do this are freed up by allowing faculty to invest less time in giving and preparing lectures, but the risk is that faculty swamped with discussions would be tempted to put off updating and refreshing course materials for longer than they should, stultifying the course. Put simply, on-line courses’ freedom from physical constraints on class size should not blind us to the other, equally real constraints they impose on size, and thus, cost effectiveness.
Another element of the economic argument contends that providing on-line programs allows the university to attract students from a larger and less local pool, thereby increasing enrollment and tuition dollars. But I see three real risks to this strategy.
First, it is not as though we are the only school pursuing this strategy: To the extent that by putting programs on-line, we abstract our identity from a particular place, we also invite our local students to consider other on-line schools they might not otherwise have considered. More generally, in recruiting on-line students from elsewhere to enroll at South, we are competing in a much larger pool against some better-known, more practiced, and in some cases less ethical alternatives, so it’s hard to be sure that the extra on-line students we attract would necessarily counterbalance those we lost to other on-line programs.
Second, even if our on-line offerings do help attract more students, this could be outweighed by the problems it creates for retention. Students leave school for a lot of different reasons, but we know that students often stick around because they have become attached to a particular set of classmates, professors, places, and the campus culture in general. By streamlining their academic experience to the bare necessities, we lose out on these auxillary attachment’s power to keep students in school. A student who withdraws is not only no longer paying tuition, but in the future may well also negatively affect our state appropriations.
Last, and relatedly, if students aren’t on campus to make these connections to our particular facilities, faculty, and student body, can we really expect them to retain the kind of loyalty to us that makes them active and generous alumni in the future? In sum, let’s not be too confident that on-line education is necessarily going to be economically advantageous to us as a University in the long run.
On a more constructive note, please allow me to briefly describe the way I personally feel that the incorporation of new technologies into higher education at South should proceed.
First and foremost is the issue of academic freedom, broadly defined. That is, why would we ever want to take an instructor who comfortable, practiced, and demonstrably effective at delivering live lecture courses and coerce them into teaching in an on-line format for which they have no enthusiasm and may well be unsuited? But at the same time, those that have a penchant for online, blended, or other course formats should be equally free to teach their classes in whatever format they believe they do their best work in.
That said, we do need to recognize that different courses and programs lend themselves to different formats and needs. Online programs and courses seem to work best with student population who are already to some degree socialized into intellectual culture, have a well-defined academic goal, and are proven self-motivators, thus the success of our on-line nursing programs.
More generally, I would argue that live lower-division and general-education courses are necessary to establish the socialization and attachment to place that will allow students to excel at their upper-division courses, whether live or online. This is especially true for student populations such as ours, that are typically first-generation college students. Additionally, those courses most explicitly about intellectual socialization, i.e. much of the Arts & Sciences curriculum and capstone courses in most any discipline, are also likely to be most effective in the live format.
Every time I have called on Jeff to help solve a Sakai related problem in the College of Medicine he has responded quickly and effectively. I just want to send a big THANK YOU to Jeff for all of his hard work! Jeff, you are making a difference and we appreciate it!
I find much of interest here and think Doug makes a compelling case. I teach courses fully online and other courses with “eCompanion” and I taught prior to there being an eCompanion. I agree that there are many ways to augment the traditional classroom with technology. The face-to-face classroom augmented with eCompanion, soon to be SAKAI, is my preferred way to engage with students. I learn various things about my students from our classroom discussions, especially before and after class, and often different things from our threaded discussions. One interesting point Doug makes is the importance of the interaction in the classroom to create “something special and utterly unique.” As I read this, I thought “wow, I want to do this,” and I was struck as I develop my lectures that this is not always in the back of my mind, but more often simply conveying course content is my primary concern. I conclude that I need to have this idea more in the front of my thinking as I prepare a classroom experience for students. Another related thought is that I am unsure that students come to our classes thinking they will have such an experience or very prepared to participate in making such an experience. These thoughts also must inform the creation of classroom experiences. Finally, I would suggest that if those of us who teach at the university do not develop and hone what makes the classroom experience worthy and unqiue, we will find ourselves out of a job.
Maryellen was wonderful. We’ll have a video of her talk up someday…
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