“Skepticism Abounds”

September 6th, 2013

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man (Jacob Jordaens,1642)

“Skepticism Abounds” was the short bit before the colon when, last week, Inside Higher Ed sent out news of its Gallup poll on faculty attitudes towards online learning — both the article and the survey itself. (It was billed as a survey of attitudes on technology, but the focus was really online instruction.) The overall picture was still dimmer than the pretty dim view painted last year by the (also IHE-sponsored) Babson surveys, titled “Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education” and “Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology” (blogged about here and there). The surveys then and now differ in method and focus (about which more anon), so this is a little apples-and-oranges, but the difference between them feels like a shift from anxious ambivalence to dug-in resistance. The question is why — why a year of moving ahead in time seems such a step backward in faculty attitudes.

Well, what a year it has been: the Year of the MOOC, as we have seen it called in the NY Times and elsewhere. Dominating the news about online education, MOOCs have not been faring well of late. There’s been a pronounced backlash, even complaints about “innovation exhaustion” and “MOOC fatigue.” Compelling recent examples include concerns from those actually offering MOOCs. In one case, a dean at UC Irvine reaffirmed MOOCs’ outlier status with a MOOC on zombies; as he said by way of explanation: “In a way, I feel that the MOOC conversation has been hijacked by the fact that they look like academic courses and people are trying to give credit for them.” That “hijacking” posed a different problem for a Princeton prof offering a popular sociology MOOC; worried about franchising or some form of co-optation, he just stepped away, as a recent Chronicle article recounted, quoting him as saying, “I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities. And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

When you have earnest and erstwhile MOOC advocates voicing such concerns, we’ve really hit the trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle. And this is relevant to those surveys because of a “horns effect” — the devilish dark side of the halo effect. It’s a kind of guilt by association, a tendency to broad-brush online ed with the taint of MOOCs and their problems with faculty buy-incompletion rates, and pedagogy.

That said, the news from the Gallup survey is grim all around, going from bad (half-way acceptance by those who have done online) to worse (general skepticism from those who haven’t). Surveys, by their very nature, thrive on points of contrast, and whereas those Babson surveys last year contrasted faculty attitudes with those of administrators (who seemed comparatively bearish and bullish on online learning respectively), the current survey does lots of disaggregation among faculty groups — depending on where they teach, what teaching modes they’re familiar with, etc.

Some things are mildly encouraging (though hardly counter-intuitive), like the way familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt for online: those who have taught online are over three times more likely to believe online ed can achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face instruction, and the confidence heightens with every step closer to home, so that this is even more true of courses in one’s field, and still more true of “the classes I teach.”

The general distaste for MOOCs reflected in the poll may stem from a lack of familiarity, but the distaste and disbelief surely shows. Over three-fourths of faculty thought the press had overhyped the value and potential of MOOCs — as did nearly three-fourths of technology administrators. That was one of the few points they were that close on. In a semi-scary divergence, tech administrators were twice as likely as faculty to agree with statement “MOOCs make me excited about the future of academe.”

But nobody’s all that excited, and that goes for online learning generally. Of all faculty, just over 20% agree that “online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses,” and nearly 50% disagree — this despite the long-standing and growing body of research that there is in fact comparability, a body so longstanding it has come to known as the “no-significant-difference phenomenon,” one trumped by a more recent meta-analysis concluding that online works actually slightly better that face-to-face, and blended learning better than both. So we have a situation where faculty opinion not only seems overwhelmingly negative, but overwhelmingly at variance with evidence-based research, something that is supposedly the stock-in-trade of faculty opinion.

And yet this is really an invitation to miss the real point, which is not to decry subjectivity (might was well lash the waves and chain the wind). Here’s the burning question: who made face-to-face teaching the gold standard anyway? Isn’t the preponderant, inescapable, in-your-face evidence that of enormous variations in quality and efficacy in all kinds of teaching — in-person, online, and, yea, even in MOOCs? Is the goal to make online or other modalities as much like the status quo of current classrooms as possible? Really?

That being a rhetorical question (with a transparency bordering on sarcasm), the most telling commentary on the poll — invited by Inside Higher Ed and cited in the article that announced the poll — was really about the essential irrelevance of the points of comparison. And this was put beautifully, compellingly, by Cathy Davidson:

We should all be thinking of more interactive, human, creative, student-centered ways of teaching that help prepare students for the current world where, since April 22, 1993, anyone with a connection to the Internet has the capacity to think an idea and then communicate it to anyone else with a connection to the Internet. That is, for the first time in human history, we have a power of connection and a responsibility of connection that is instantaneous and global. Yet we are still teaching students as if that power did not exist, we are doing little to train them (or ourselves) for the harrowing and inspiring (both) powers of this world. Having a ‘doc on a laptop’ (my phrase for the video equivalent of the ‘sage on the stage’) yap at you from a computer screen does not prepare you for a digital world any more than a lecture course. BOTH need new paradigms, new thinking of everything from what we mean by teaching, what we mean by learning, how we help students integrate subjects that have been separated by our educational system for the last 150 years, and how we move away from standardization to iterative, customized, collaborative, and creative thinking.


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