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Bill Maxwell

Online class needs reboot

On two different occasions, I was invited to teach an online college journalism course. The first time, I declined without hesitation because as a traditionalist, I believed that face-to-face instruction was more effective than so-called "distance learning." The second time, I accepted because I let a few former colleagues who were teaching online courses talk me into it.

The college gave me a laptop to use and paid me the going rate for adjuncts. I posted the syllabus, a few major readings and some assignments online. I required a regular textbook that had to be purchased at the bookstore or online. For midterm, I required the students to write an in-depth news story on a current issue. For the final, they had to write a straight feature between 1,500 and 2,000 words. The telephone numbers and addresses of each source had to accompany the stories.

At the end of the semester, neither my students nor I had enjoyed the experience. I moped around for several weeks, believing that I had utterly failed. Indeed, I knew that I had been inadequately prepared for the new method, but my colleagues had assured me that the learning curve was easy. It was not.

That was nearly three years ago. Since then, I have researched the effectiveness of online instruction, and I have spoken with many professors who teach such courses, some of them at Florida Gulf Coast University, which has specialized in distance learning since it officially opened in 1997.

I was surprised the other day when I read summaries of two surveys of 10,000 professors at 67 public universities who teach online courses and of administrators from 45 universities. The surveys showed that after nearly three decades of online courses in every discipline nationwide, the verdict is still out on the effectiveness of distance leaning.

Conducted by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and presented at the recent American Council on Education conference, the surveys found "widespread concern" in several areas of online instruction. Most notably, while most faculty members say online instruction offers more access and flexibility to students, they argue that developing and teaching online courses is burdensome compared to on-campus teaching.

The majority of professors say it takes more time and effort to develop materials for distance learning, which I can confirm. When I did not see my students, I sensed that I was working with strangers, which meant that I could not deviate from what was online. It was a one-size-fits-all process. The upshot is that the teacher often must provide more details than needed in order to reduce the possibility of misunderstandings.

Most of the faculty members did not believe that online instruction produced better "learning outcomes," with many saying their students were not mature enough and too undisciplined for the independence that distance learning requires. Some professors reported lower retention rates in their online courses, with 70 percent saying that learning outcomes were "inferior" in their online courses.

The numbers changed when only faculty who had taught online courses were polled, with 48 percent saying such courses produced inferior learning outcomes. Even with this drop, pollsters said, 48 percent still represents a "substantial minority" that holds a negative opinion.

Not surprisingly, most professors believed that they were inadequately compensated when they assumed the extra the duty of teaching online. A major sore spot, professors said, was that their administrators did not give much weight to online teaching experience in awarding tenure and promotions. This fact alone scares professors away from teaching online courses.

Administrators acknowledged they must do more to bring distance learning into the mainstream on their campuses. For one, they could include online instruction in their mission statements and centralize the distance learning curriculum and operations, complete with an office and an administrative staff.

Given the condition of the economy, however, some administrators say enhancing the effectiveness of distance learning may have to wait. If the surveys are accurate indicators, many professors will not mourn the slowdown in online instruction.

Online class needs reboot 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 4:02am]

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