Confirmation of the bloody obvious

From the “No $hit, Fred,” files: Some Groups May Not Benefit From Online Education, via Inside Higher Ed:

Some of the students most often targeted in the push to use online learning to increase college access are less likely than their peers to benefit from — and may in fact be hurt by — digital as opposed to face-to-face instruction, new data from a long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College suggest.

“Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas,” by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, researchers at the center, examines the performance of nearly 40,000 Washington State community college students who took both online and on-ground courses, and finds significant differences in how various subgroups performed. Students of all types completed fewer courses and achieved lower grades online than they did in face-to-face classes[.  M]en, African-Americans, and academically underprepared students had the biggest gaps between the two mediums.

I’ve written here before about my skepticism that the MOOC and online “revolution” is being led by people affiliated with highly selective private universities, when after all they’re producing a product that’s intended for the state uni and community college crowd.  Here’s why  it’s important to talk to faculty who teach first generation students, working-class returning students, nonwhite students, and students who are financing their own educations through heavy student loan borrowing:  we’re already teaching your target “customers,” and we know what they need and why online courses won’t fit the bill.

The Teachers College paper itself goes on to explain why it found different results depending on subject matter:  “In particular, students struggled in subject areas such as English and social science (defined rather strangely in this paper as anthropology, philosophy, and psychology), which was due in part to negative peer effects in these online courses.”  While overall students got worse grades in online versus face-to-face courses, this relationship was relatively weak in fields like computer science, the natural sciences, and applied professions.  On the other hand, students in online English and social science courses earned grades that were significantly worse than their peers in f2f courses.  The authors of the paper explain that the results don’t account for how the other students in the class might affect a student’s performance, and theorize that the difference here may result from the fact that English and social science online students are weaker students than those who sign up for computer science, natural science, or applied professional online coursework.

So, in other words, even if your online course doesn’t resort to totally disreputable and ineffective “peer grading,” your peers may matter more than you think in terms of your own personal achievement.  This suggests to me as well that professors matter too.  We matter not just to the weaker students who appear to benefit more from f2f courses, but even to the strongest students as we have a decisive leadership role in our own classrooms as to what we talk about, how we discuss issues and problems, and in what we decide to do with “teaching moments” in f2f classes that might appear to be purely provocative and/or clueless student comments in an online discussion session.  I’m sure all of you faculty types can think back with pride on a moment in which you were challenged in class by a student, or a time when you took what seemed like a profoundly obvious comment and used it as an opportunity for deeper exploration of a subject or problem.

Here’s something none of the scamtastic “geniuses” busy fleecing our least sophisticated, least prepared for college-level work, and least knowledgeable about the process students have ever talked about:  how do letters of recommendation (or rather, requests for letters of recommendation) work for online students?  I will never teach an online course, so this question is purely philosophical for me, but I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable vouching for a student I had never met.  (At present, our university’s online scam has no way to ensure that work submitted online was actually completed by the person under whose name it was submitted, and I’m sure yours doesn’t either.)

So, sucks to your online courses.  They’re failing even by their own standards, let alone my considerably higher personal standards.  

20 thoughts on “Confirmation of the bloody obvious

  1. None of these fuckers promoting on-line education would ever subject their own kiddes to it. None of the high-end elite institutions who are publishing courses on line will ever allow their own students to take such courses for credit. This shitte is all designed as cheap crappe for the proles.


  2. But would you write a letter of recommendation for the genius who came up with this:

    I’m old enough to remember when “Sunrise Semester” –going to college by watching TV programs early in the morning–was promoted as a way of educating the masses cheaply. How did that work out???


  3. I generally agree, but am a bit less sanguine that I can be certain all my students in traditional classes do their own work (given the nature of my class — writing in the disciplines — the grade is based almost entirely on papers, not exams). I can imagine writing a letter of recommendation for a student I’ve never met in person (though I haven’t done so yet). I suppose I might actually be recommending hir mom, or girlfriend, or paid double, but of course that could be the case even in a traditional class (the famous case of cheating — or trying to cheat — in a traditional class is, of course, Teddy Kennedy). My online classes involve a great many small assignments, as well as some big ones, and I’d have to be impressed by the whole package, including intelligent questions posed, voluntarily, by email, to write a recommendation. A paid or unpaid stand-in would have to be very active, on an almost daily basis, to build up that sort of a record. It’s far more likely that a student would try to do some of the work hirself, and farm out the major assignments, which would produce a situation comparable to the student in a traditional class who performs poorly on in-class and preparatory assignments, and then turns in a suspiciously good final paper. I may not be able to flunk such a student, whether I encountered hir face to face or online, but I certainly wouldn’t write a recommendation.

    That said, I absolutely agree that professors matter. Those of us who teach relatively small (20-25 person, in my case) classes online can create, and take advantage of, some of the same sorts of teaching moments that you describe; the conversation just unfolds a bit more slowly online (which also means that one can take a moment to craft a response when brought up short by a student remark — not necessarily a bad thing). But that assumes a professor with a reasonable enough course/student load that (s)he can stay on top of what’s going on on the discussion board (or whatever else is being used for interaction), and enough autonomy to tweak/revise the course regularly, both during and between semesters. That situation bears no resemblance to the “set it and forget it” MOOC (or even the publisher-provided “course package”), run on a day-to-day basis by underpaid assembly-line tenders labeled “instructors,” that most administrators are hoping will revolutionize the teaching of intro-level courses. Those, I agree, are, if not outright scams, then at least a vastly inferior product/experience. Good online teaching is labor-intensive, probably a bit more so than classroom teaching. And even with good teaching, one is going to get the higher attrition rates, because online students are more likely to take on more than they can manage, all the more so if they’re lured by ads touting ease and convenience. Personally, I send registered students a “welcome” letter that conveys as much warning about the time involved as encouragement to stay in the course, and I still get significant attrition, particularly in the first weeks of the class.

    I can’t speak to the other subjects mentioned, but I’d guess that English students fail in larger numbers in part because they do, in fact, have to write papers to pass the class, and many of them simply don’t do the work. I’m teaching above the cc level (mostly juniors), but that’s the most common reason for failure, online or face to face. A test you can always take a shot at, and see how it goes. A paper you actually have to write (or pay someone else to write, but I seem to have a considerable number of students each semester who don’t choose to do that, but don’t write their own papers either).


  4. Didn’t realize that many fuckers are involved with online education. But then, my three sons went through f2f education and encountered many fuckers as well.

    Once one leaves school, in our case with a doctorate, most of our endless learning is online. In my case, my knowledge, teaching, expertise, concerns were acquired by reading and research. Engineering and math have changed to areas in medicine and large organizations.

    Learning always was mainly online. My comment is not a counter argument; it a request to deal with the problem seriously.


  5. I’d guess that on-line English courses are hard because they require critical reading as a primary part of the course, and if you’re not a strong reader, you’ll find it hard to be a strong writer. At least in face to face courses, you may learn because someone else understood just enough more than you to ask the right question(s), and then someone explained in different words what was happening.

    But a lot of my face to face students are weak readers, and need a fair bit of help learning how to read well at the college level. I don’t know how you give students that help on-line.


  6. The notion that you can “hack” a degree and get the best in life – let alone a decent education – is the biggest lie since we were told that the JC walked with the dinosaurs. Seriously, with the Times reporting the other day that the BA is basically a required feature of any successful job app, what possible reason – other than just screwing over every single demographic to have made an advancement in the last 50 years, and putting an end to the publics – could there be for creating an easily dismissed BA “lite”?


  7. @Bardiac: I’m teaching composition, so the reading is mostly of nonfiction texts, but yes, the issue still applies. I have them annotate texts (and then compile their annotations/offer my own for comparison), pull out particulars and write about them, etc. Not too different from what I’d do in class.


  8. More general comment: at this point, my greatest fear is that so many tenure-track faculty who have the power to say “no” to teaching online will do so (and perhaps discourage TT colleagues who might be interested, especially but not exclusively more junior TT colleagues, from doing so as well), that administrators will get what they’d actually prefer: an all-adjunct online teaching faculty that has very little power to stand up for quality.

    I’m not saying that everyone should try teaching online (or that every subject can be taught well online). But at this point, rejecting all online teaching as worthless, or at least inevitably of lesser quality, just plays into the hands of those who want to offer courses cheaply using the online format, and are willing to sacrifice quality to do so.

    We need a conversation about what a high-quality online class in various fields looks like (and also, yes, about what truly can’t be done online, but starting from the assumption that it’s worth at least considering that it *could* be done). And we need tenured faculty to participate in that conversation, and in the experiment in online teaching, and to draw the line when administrators suggest approaches to online teaching that will diminish quality. Those of us without tenure (or the possibility thereof) just don’t have the same power to insist on the working conditions, structures, etc. that make good online teaching possible.


  9. Cassandra, I hear what you’re saying, but you already don’t have the power “to insist on the working conditions, structures, etc. that make good online (or f2f) teaching possible.” I think regular faculty can help with this goal whether or not we are teaching online. But, truth be told: it’s not like we’ve been all that effective in resisting the adjunctification of our faculty who teach f2f and share our hallways, copy machines, bathrooms, and mailrooms.

    In the end, the regular faculty can do little more than help. It’s the adjuncts themselves who need to organize and demand better pay & working conditions. Adjuncts need to be willing to walk away (or be fired) from jobs that pay too little and demand too much. They need to be willing to put their bodies and time on the line–something with which the online world can help, but in the end, bodies in the streets matter SO much more than online petitions, Facebook “likes,” or a Tumblr feed. That’s the only thing that will make a difference in the long run.

    It’s hard enough to organize a faculty when you all have to show up physically in a shared space to go to work. I would argue that it’s online teaching itself that makes organization even more difficult, and that the participation or resistance of the regular faculty in online teaching matters little to the fate of adjuncts.

    I live in hope that online education comes to be seen as “sunrise semester,” as Faithful Reader mentioned above in her comment, or like Elderhostel, not as the equivalent of a college education. (I have written about this before–about the fact that previous “disruptive technologies” have not in fact made f2f classrooms irrelevant.) I could be wrong–but I’ve got long centuries’ worth of experience with “disruptive technologies” on my side.


  10. I’m getting ready to teach an on-line class this summer. I am doing this mainly because last summer my f2f class did not get enough enrollment to be viable. I looked at our state’s on-line portal that lists all the on-line classes being taught for that term at all the unis and cc’s in our system. Sure enough there were four online classes that met the same general education goals as my class and they were all full.

    I’m also curious about what the experience could be like. Several friends of mine teach a significant portion of their course load online. They liked it well enough to continue to develop their classes and it seems like one of the few ways to make some extra cash in this profession. So I’ll see if I can’t claim a homestead in the world of on-line education.


  11. and by the way one of my friends who teaches online has a whole unit called, “Is online education for me?” It walks students through the pitfalls and problems of online ed before they even start on hir American history to 1865 survey. I plan on doing the same thing and I think I will link to some of the studies you shared in the post. Buyer beware indeed.


  12. I’m just not sure what “draw the line” means in the context of administrators who–with their limited mentalities and vocabularies–are ready to reflexively pronounce participation in the “conversation” as “buy-in,” and then to use that to ratchet the rest of the recalcitrants in the direction they want to go in. As Historiann suggests, it’s hard enough to maintain any kind of control of pedagogy even in a world of closable doors and “chief academic officers” who can’t find the buildings with the classrooms in them. The more of it that goes online, the more it gets like the boiler room-in-Mineola bond sales model, where the frontline instructor “escalates” the problem to the manager, and “this class may be monitored to ensure quality…”

    As far as face-to-face goes, I worry that face to face itself is disappearing, as students sit in campus cafes “with” their friends, each tending to their devices, holding them up once in a while to display a text or a picture. In that sense, f2f may be a doomed sphere itself, but the classroom at least offers a place where it can be imposed by rule part of the time. I keep waiting for the generational pendulum-swing. I’ve heard anecdotally that kids are doing less and less facebooking.

    Koshembos rightly notes the irony of the fact that so many of us distance skeptics spend much of the rest of our days vacuuming knowledge from the etherspace. But there is a difference, I think, between *being* educated remotely, and *using* education in that environment.


  13. faithful reader: That boostmygrades site? Yikes. Just yikes. I went all the way to the bottom, curious to see what the disclaimer would say.

    “ is considered a tutoring service. Please understand your school’s academic policies and read our complete” It cuts off there because they must not make enough money to hire a real web designer who knows about expanding containers to fit content.

    About adjuncts striking, first it would be essential for universities to sign onto agreements that preclude hiring replacements for strikers. That’ll happen when the moon turns into green cheese. The only kind of strike that might work would be one where *all* the faculty participate in solidarity, and all hang tough. Can you see that happening? And what you’re asking of the much poorer and less secure adjuncts is more than that.

    (I realize I’m being a Debbie Downer. I don’t have a solution. Just grim foreboding.)


  14. One early morning question: Do online schools have active alums? Do those alumni ever feel engaged enough to give back, through mentorship or donations? How will those institutions survive if there is no link from past to present students?


  15. In the end, the regular faculty can do little more than help. It’s the adjuncts themselves who need to organize and demand better pay & working conditions. Adjuncts need to be willing to walk away (or be fired) from jobs that pay too little and demand too much. They need to be willing to put their bodies and time on the line–something with which the online world can help, but in the end, bodies in the streets matter SO much more than online petitions, Facebook “likes,” or a Tumblr feed. That’s the only thing that will make a difference in the long run.

    Although these people have mostly stopped showing up here, at Tenured Radical, Dr. Crazy, and at other blogges of tenured faculty, there is a faction of non-tenure-track faculty who claim that the tenured/tenure-track faculty are their oppressors–or at a minimum in league with their oppressors–and that the only ethically sound action for tenured faculty is to voluntarily relinquish their tenured positions.


  16. Pingback: The magic rubric. | More or Less Bunk

  17. Indyanna writes, “But there is a difference, I think, between *being* educated remotely, and *using* education in that environment.”

    Yes, exactly. Koshembos teaches only postgrads, while most people here teach undergrads at all levels. I teach grad students every year, too. What works for graduate school pedagogy–either f2f or online–does not work with 18- and 19-year-olds who need to learn how to learn.

    Matt L’s idea of taking students through a self-examination of whether or not online ed will work for his students is a terrific one. Matt, would you please report back on how this is done (reading assignments? an online quiz?) and how you think this works?


  18. I’ve actually developed a lot of sympathy for the kinds of online educators discussed above. You know, the ones who try really hard to create the best online experience possible. As it takes so much more effort to write something than to speak something, they put in way more effort than the rest of us for doing even the most paltry functions of teaching. Then the MOOC enthusiasts come along and tell them that their efforts don’t matter at all.

    Perhaps online education is a gateway drug for wasting higher education entirely.


  19. Hey Historiann,

    I definitely will report back on how that self-examination goes. I am going to ask the students to read a couple of things, but I’m not sure how I will get a response from them. Maybe a discussion board or self-quiz or a poll? I think our on-line teaching guru already has an assignment for this. One of the things they have had us reading asks students to do regular reflections on what they are learning and how they are learning it, or not.

    One of the things I was thinking about today, after reading your post and the comments here, is that maybe the best class for us to put on-line would be our senior capstone class where the students write an article length paper based on original research. Right now they are scheduled to meet once a week, but there are several weeks built into the calendar for research, writing, and conferences. So we maybe meet as a class for six or eight weeks out of the sixteen week semester. This might be something we could do completely on-line, or in part, because its mostly self paced work anyway.

    In some ways it makes more sense for the seniors to work independently and interact on-line, because by this point, they either know what they are doing, or they don’t and a three credit class in their last semester is not going to change that. The Freshmen in the intro level classes are still figuring out how to be college students, and they are probably the last people who should be taking on-line classes, they need the most poking, prodding, and socializing into what it means to be a college student.

    Historiann, what are your thoughts and the thoughts of the other teachers who do this kind of project based teaching?


  20. Stale thread but I feel like this:

    It’s the adjuncts themselves who need to organize and demand better pay & working conditions. Adjuncts need to be willing to walk away (or be fired) from jobs that pay too little and demand too much. They need to be willing to put their bodies and time on the line–something with which the online world can help, but in the end, bodies in the streets matter SO much more than online petitions, Facebook “likes,” or a Tumblr feed. That’s the only thing that will make a difference in the long run.

    is is expecting a level of solidarity never before seen in human history. There’s no shop to walk out of, no picket line to form, no tactics we can use to prevent the hiring of scabs or put pressure on administrators, no peer pressure to exert on colleagues who may be reconsidering their courageous stand since they have a family to support. Most of the time I have no idea about the identity of the other several hundred people applying for these jobs. As quixote indicates, successful labor action requires that everyone in the shop, including those on tt and with tenure (who play a large if not final role in the hiring process) participate in the resistance. There is nothing I can do if some department in Sioux Falls or Valdosta hires an adjunct. Nothing consequential anyway. Bodies in the streets? Am I going to buy a plane ticket every time word spreads that some uni hired an adjunct? How would I even know? Half (or more?) of these contingent jobs are not even advertised. These fools CPP mentions who think that mass resignations are the answer to our problems are just that, fools. But it is true we are dependent on their actions. Nothing will happen without a commitment of participation from those who cannot be fired.


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