‘College for $99 a Month’ – Persons Are Important, Presence Is Not?

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

Harry Keller wrote in ”Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’” that “persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.”

As I read Harry’s posts, I realized one thing that has always nagged at me  about some of the discussions about online learning. As I have read some of the various discussions, I have felt that what I consider the human interaction factor is being ignored. As a student and as a teacher, I want to see, hear, feel, even smell the people I am interacting with. After reading Harry’s post, I realized that I am looking through the lens of an instructor who does not teach large lecture style courses, and that I teach courses which are more focused on process than content. I teach classes of 10-25 students and I am a skilled facilitator of these seminar-style classes with groups of students who want to be or are K-12 teachers, people who need to be able to interact effectively face-to-face with other human beings.

______________________________

As a student and as a teacher, I want to see, hear, feel, even smell the people I am interacting with.

______________________________

However, I can see where a content course with large numbers of students, such as Chemistry 101, would probably be taught more effectively in the online environment. I remember the few large lecture courses I took in college, and I did not perform well in many of them. I would fall asleep or totally zone out. I am sure I would have learned more from a well-designed online course.

However, there’s the rub. John Adsit (‘College for $99 a Month’ – A Step in the Right Direction) referred to schools which are developing high quality online courses. They hire educational theorists who understand how students learn. They hire technology teams to create interactive and engaging multimedia to teach critical concepts. They have project directors who see the whole project through to its conclusion, a process which may take most of a year. They create careful formative and summative assessment programs rarely seen in colleges. A single course costs many tens of thousands of dollars to create.

Unfortunately I don’t think many programs invest the time or money into this kind of design. I have taken online courses which I think were well-designed, and coupled with my self-discipline, I have learned from them, and enjoyed the interaction with other students. I have taken others online courses which were poorly-designed so that I felt more frustration than satisfaction with my learning.

I appreciate the discussion on this topic because I think it really highlights the complexity of the issues that we as modern educators face. I think if we lock ourselves into the idea there is only one modality or one way of delivery we are ignoring the flexibility and versatility that education, with and without technology, can offer.

7 Responses

  1. In referring to my article, Lynn said that I referred to “schools which are developing high quality online courses.” This may seem like a small point, but I did not refer to schools that were developing these courses. I referred to private educational course developers. The distinction is important, for I also said that schools will not do this because they cannot do so within their existing structure.

    One of the reasons they cannot do it is cost. It will cost them too much money to do that in comparison with the income they will receive from the relatively few students who will use it. A private organization can do it because they hope their product will be used by thousands of students around the world.

    Lynn’s point that few schools are doing it now is exactly my point. They cannot and will not do it. The change must come from outside the current system, which is the change we are discussion. That is precisely the point Christensen and Horn make–the change cannot be made by the incumbent organization.

    One of the hallmarks of the well made online curriculum will be the way it facilitates–even demands–quality teacher/student and student/student interaction. In time that will become apparent, and schools will be able to sort out the good from the bad.

  2. I re-read what you wrote and I see where I misunderstood your reference. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Unfortunately, schools and school systems do not have the abilty or the mindset for the extensive R&D upon which many successful businesses thrive.

  3. Lynn is right to point out the variety of quality when it comes to online courses. I guess if youyou look at the online courses available now, there isn’t enough good quality to go around. However, I think this is because a lot of it is done half-heartedly.

    If you have a situation where you are competing for students in a vibrant marketplace of online courses, educators would learn pretty quickly how to design good quality online courses. Very soon you would have people pushing the boundaries of excellence. With a blank canvas, reputations would have to be built and built on quality.

    • I know how to do quality online courses–it was my job to oversee that development and guide course designers.

      That being said, I could not possibly create that kind of quality working on my own within the present system. The best courses take an entire team with expert technology support to create a course–how could I possible do that, even if I had all that expertise myself?

      I think the problem is that what most people think of as the best courses available–based on their experiences–are in fact mediocre to poor at best in comparison to what can already be created by a dedicated team of experts.

      As Christensen and Horn point out, the incumbent system cannot create the change that will lead to true disruptive technology.

    • Whenever I see a comment like this, I always like to see how the assertion reads with the words “online” et al. removed or replaced, i.e.:

      Lynn is right to point out the variety of quality when it comes to courses. I guess if you look at the courses available now, there isn’t enough good quality to go around. However, I think this is because a lot of it is done half-heartedly.
      If you have a situation where you are competing for students in a vibrant marketplace of courses, educators would learn pretty quickly how to design good quality courses. Very soon you would have people pushing the boundaries of excellence. With a blank canvas, reputations would have to be built and built on quality.

      OR:

      Lynn is right to point out the variety of quality when it comes to classroom courses. I guess if you look at the classroom courses available now, there isn’t enough good quality to go around. However, I think this is because a lot of it is done half-heartedly.
      If you have a situation where you are competing for students in a vibrant marketplace of classroom courses, educators would learn pretty quickly how to design good quality classroom courses. Very soon you would have people pushing the boundaries of excellence. With a blank canvas, reputations would have to be built and built on quality.

      The question is, are these assertions any more or less accurate than Tom’s assertion about online courses? And if they are just as accurate (which is what I would assert), what is the value of singling out online courses?

  4. Lynn, on September 7 you expressed your concerns about what you called “the human interaction factor.”” You believe that the apostles of online learning are ignoring it.

    I could not read or comment on your teaching on September 7 One of the advantages of online interaction is that it eliminates or minimizes this pressure of proximity and real time “interaction.” I can brood about your comment, check some sources, come back to our connection and communicaiton when I have something to say. Do you see this is as a gain over the pressure of real time interaction? A loss?

    That is: I do not see you, or hear you. All that I have are your provocative comments that are the essence of what you had to say–what you had to teach me. Would I really have moved to learn more if I had heard you say these things in real time, and in the space of your classroom?

    Lynn, you say you want to see, hear…even smell your students. We can all understand that human need for “presence.”

    The question you might be willing to consider carefully is this:

    Is there any evidence that I would learn more from you and your instruction if I was able to see, hear, and even smell you?

    The case for ” presence” rests on that question and your answer.

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