The Confused State of ‘Online’ Courses at Sac State

Sacramento State is a prime example of the state of online education in our nation’s colleges. Confused.

In “Online Education Now in Demand, Report Says” (State Hornet, Nov.  9-10, 2010), Laila Barakat reviews a recent legislative analyst’s report on California Community Colleges and state universities and interviews staff at Sac State. I haven’t read the report so the quotes (direct and indirect), below, that are related to it are Barakat’s impressions.

According to the report, “distance education” is the same as “online,” and “hybrid” is something totally different. Furthermore, the “demand for high-quality and accessible distance education” courses is “great.”

The advantage of online instruction is the access it provides students to courses they wouldn’t be able to take because of schedule conflicts. Additionally, they allow “campuses to increase instruction and enrollment without building additional classrooms and parking structures, and create ‘virtual’ academic departments that are taught by faculty from more than one campus.”

At Sac State, out of “nearly 5,000 classes this semester,” 114 are “hybrid” and 64 are “online,” said Jean Pierre Bayard. As assistant vice president for academic affairs technology initiatives and director of academic technology and creative services, Bayard’s words carry a lot of weight so his pronouncement that online and hybrid “courses will never become the norm, but we want to provide enough (of them) so that both faculty and their students see them as true options” bears scrutiny.

According to the report, half of all “faculty who have taught online courses feel that learning outcomes do not quite stack up to classroom-based instruction.” Based on this survey, Bayard says the university focuses “on hybrid offerings because we believe that they are the preferred option for most members of the academic community.”

Bayard makes a clear distinction between “online” and “classroom-based” instruction. But does he? What does “classroom-based” mean? Is it traditional F2F (face-to-face) classes or “hybrid”? Are “online” and “hybrid” the same? Or different? Based on the context, my guess is that the comparison is between completely online and hybrid, and hybrid is considered classroom-based. Thus, the conclusion is that hybrid is superior to and preferable to completely online.

But this distinction is difficult to nail down in terms of actual practice.  For example, Sac State assistant professor Vera Margoniner “teaches a general education astronomy class online and said online classes can be just as, ‘or even more,’ effective than traditional face-to-face classes because not everyone in traditional classes participate[s] in class discussions.”

She continued, “Online classes challenge students to think critically and develop a deeper understanding of the subject by forcing the student to sit and really think about what they are writing. . . . These (online) courses require frequent participation in discussions and other activities, or else the student will fall behind.”

Furthermore, Margoniner supplements instruction with YouTube videos “to make her classes as interesting as possible.”

The impression from the quotes above is that Margoniner’s classes are totally online and state of the art. However, she bursts that bubble when, “In an effort to make online classes seem less impersonal, . . . she had her students come to class on the first day of school to meet her, their classmates, and their online discussion groups in person.”

By requiring this one F2F meeting, Margoniner turns her online class into a hybrid class. Of course, educators can and do get around this distinction by declaring that one or a few F2F meetings don’t disqualify a course from the “online” category. In fact, the vast majority of education organizations use an arbitrary ratio to distinguish between  online and hybrid. Sloan Consortium’s 80:20 rule (Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009, p. 4) seems to have become a de facto standard, i.e., 80% completely online and 20% F2F is the demarcation line between the two. One percent less, 79:21, and an online class is hybrid.

Does this online vs. hybrid distinction matter?

It matters  because it’s there, like Everest, and powerful decision-makers such as Bayard will make or influence decisions based on it. For example, Bayard says professors prefer hybrid because online courses “do not quite stack up to classroom-based instruction.” And by “classroom-based” he apparently means hybrid, or courses that are less than a certain percentage online.

Margoniner’s required first day of class F2F meeting is probably considered less than an acceptable percentage, ensuring that her class is online rather than hybrid. Yet, from the perspective of totally online instruction, her course is hybrid because of the F2F requirement.

Why does this distinction matter?

It matters because the required F2F meeting, even if it’s only one class, automatically excludes entire populations of potential students who would not consider enrolling because of this restriction or requirement. For this population, completely online is the only viable option, and it includes people who work full-time, who live at a distance that automatically precludes commuting, who are caring for others at home, or who are physically unable to attend F2F classes.

It matters because 80:20 or any other ratio (85:15, 90:10, etc.) is purely arbitrary, yet it defines the success or failure of online courses. Thus courses that are considered hybrid, with less than, say, 80% online time, are deemed more successful than those with 80% or more. The implication is clear: beyond this demarcation point, wherever it’s set, learning suffers. Conclusion: after a given point, the greater the online percentage, the worse the learning outcome. The writing on the wall is that 100% (or 100:0) online is the worst implementation of “online” classes.

It matters because decisions about the true value of completely online classes are based on surveys of teachers who are not completely online, teachers who consider F2F meetings, even one per term, a necessity.

It matters because another survey, based on teachers who teach all of their classes completely online, who don’t have offices on campus, who don’t attend F2F meetings on campus, who may live thousands of miles away from campus, who never require F2F meetings with students, might have produced different results.

It matters because students whose classes are all completely online, who don’t live on or commute to campus, who don’t attend any F2F classes, who may live thousands of miles away from campus might have responded differently to surveys measuring the effectiveness of hybrid vs. online learning.

It matters because administrators of completely online programs who don’t have offices on campus, who don’t attend F2F meetings on campus, who may live thousands of miles away from campus, who never require F2F meetings with colleagues might have designed different surveys and interpreted the results differently.

It matters because, if we really want to give online a fair shot at success, then it can’t be hamstrung with hybrid and F2F restrictions and biases.

Online and hybrid are often couched in adversarial terms, either-or propositions. This need not be. The point of this article is that these are two very different approaches to teaching, and they serve different populations of students and educators. Hybrid is a perfectly fine model for campus-based students and educators who want to use the latest technology to improve instruction and learning. However, hybrid is not an ideal setting for completely online instruction. It’s like an apple competing in the Miss Orange Beauty Pageant.

Completely online is meant for students and educators who are committed to, comfortable in, and successful in the virtual learning environment. They view required F2F meetings on campus as an unnecessary impediment to teaching and learning, an obstacle rather than an aid, something to be avoided rather than approached. They believe, without a doubt, that online is not only superior to hybrid but provides opportunities for teaching and learning that are far beyond the scope of hybrid.

Both hybrid and online can and should coexist. However, we must treat them as different strokes for different folks.

I’ve said elsewhere in ETCJ that completely online learning and teaching is the wave of the future and that its growth in the field of education, at all levels, is inevitable. It won’t ever completely replace hybrid, but it will grow exponentially as a separate and different world of learning that will no longer be defined by classrooms, campuses, and offices. In the end, it’ll be like the cell phone alternative to landlines and phone booths.

6 Responses

  1. Your conclusion is totally correct. Somehow, somewhere, F2F classes will continue for a long time. However, online courses will move into the instruction space, especially in post-secondary education.

    People graduating from high-school are more and more savvy about electronic communication. They expect more from this medium. The wave of completely savvy students is on the way, and, like a tsunami, it won’t be resisted.

    We should be talking about a new “hybrid” course, one that uses synchronous and asynchronous communication rather than the old hybrid that uses F2F and online. Can an online course work well with only asynchronous communication, or is some synchronous communication necessary to success? My guess: it depends on the subject and the instructor.

    For years, I’ve been trumpeting the idea that online courses can far exceed in quality and in learning the traditional F2F classroom courses in science (my specialty) within the secondary school system. A hybrid approach has shown the potential by giving science labs as homework and saving 1/3 of the students from failing their science Regents exams in New York.

    We must have more of these bold and creative ideas to use in our schools. The students are demanding them. Schools must supply them. I’m pleased to be a part of this discussion that will lead us into an entirely new approach to learning that utilizes technology well.

    I have to add that I believe that the new learning will take most of its ideas from the past. The difference will be that technology now can enable these ideas that are so hard to implement without it. I think of “learning to mastery” as just one example. That’s very hard to do in a classroom with 35-40 students. With the right software, it’ll be a cinch. Of course, the job of creating that software may not be quite so easy, but it’s worth the effort.

  2. Because Online can work we in the teaching field have now a constant set of Webinars, virtual learning initiatives and new tools to use.

    Some of the Webinars are so boring, I would rather listen to a lecture that was equally boring.

    What tools dow we use to evaluate and give feedback to these initiatives. If feedback was a constant and possibly anonymous perhaps changes would be made. But there probably is the same model as in face to face where they can identify you and therefore teachers won’t complain.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  3. Harry, the first time I began to reply to your comment, I ended up writing the article on EBUS academy, in response to your comment that “online courses will move into the instruction space, especially in post-secondary education.” EBUS is just one example of online happening at the school level, too, even at the earliest grade levels.

    The second time I tried, I couldn’t get past the first few lines: “Somehow, somewhere, F2F classes will continue for a long time. However, online courses will move into the instruction space.” It reminded me of how some of the top university libraries are responding to the power of internet technology and are on the cutting edge, poised to make the most of the trend toward information in digital form and the virtual dimension as potentially the most powerful platform for knowledge sharing and discovery.

    I did a quick google and was most impressed by Cambridge University Library’s Working Together: A Strategic Framework 2010–2013. The vision statement is remarkably bold: “Cambridge University Library will lay the foundation for a twentyfirst-century library service to support the changing needs of teaching, learning and research. . . . During this transformational period we will encompass a wider range of services that will require innovation and careful risk management” (2).

    In the opening section, “Catalysts for Change,” the first four focus on the new technologies: “[1] The changing needs of scholarly activities in a digital world push boundaries and create new areas for support and development. [2] Rapid advances in technology offer exciting opportunities and previously unimaginable ways of working. At the centre is the user, with individual requiring customised support and services. [3] ‘Open is the New Normal’ – the academic community increasingly calls for open access to all information to support teaching, learning and research. [4] Today’s undergraduates have an expectation of ‘anything, anytime, anywhere’ and mobile technologies will form an essential part of systems that meet their expectations” (2).

    The MIT Libraries Annual Report FY 2008-2009 is also worth noting. In her introduction, Ann J. Wolpert, Director of Libraries, says, “Lessons learned and conclusions drawn from the process of developing the ‘Desired Future State’ reflect a growing understanding within the Libraries that incremental change may no longer be sufficient if the Libraries are to continue to fulfill their mission for MIT. Although surveys consistently demonstrate that the MIT Libraries are at present a popular, highly valued academic unit within MIT, technological advances increasingly have the potential to radically alter many of the assumptions that underpin research libraries worldwide” (2).

    If we think of libraries as open platforms for independent learning and if we juxtapose this to the goals of most colleges and universities, then we begin to realize that libraries may be lighting the way to a 21st century vision of post secondary education.

    Looks as though the third time’s the charm! -Jim S

  4. Bonnie: “What tools do we use to evaluate and give feedback to these initiatives. If feedback was a constant and possibly anonymous perhaps changes would be made. But there probably is the same model as in face to face where they can identify you and therefore teachers won’t complain.”

    Bonnie, one question I’d like to see at the top of end-of-presentation evaluations is: “For your purposes, could this presentation have been delivered online as text or recorded video or audio?”

    I’ve sat through too many Powerpoint presentations that I felt should have been placed online for asynch access and discussion.

    The problem with F2F presentations, even when they’re very good, is access. Only a few can attend. The vast majority of people simply can’t be there because of cost, distance, or other commitments. The question in my mind is, Why exclude so many who could benefit from the presentation when the means — internet technology — for inclusion are readily available, simple, and free?

    This is the question that keeps me motivated in the pursuit of online alternatives to F2F practices. -Jim S

  5. Jim. Great conversation. There are so many conferences I have been to that the f to f is not.. NOT good. So virtual at least would not cost an arm and a leg and a hotel room.
    Great points you make.

    My concerns for virtual is the plethora of them with the time problem, but I see your point . I know that virtually there is a way to identify each respondent. That should be a good thing. Not sure if it is if you complain. Well what I mean is that there is little room for a divergent viewpoint in some cases, but you make me think well
    a penny saved is a penny earned and the universal access is a good thing.’Thanks


  6. Hi, Bonnie. One possibility is that the present concept of conference has to change to accommodate 21st century technology. Perhaps papers and presentations should be a year-long activity on the web, with discussions occurring asynchronously throughout the year.

    If F2F is considered critical, perhaps they could be organized by regions with options for groups as small as 2 or 3 participants in remoter areas. All regions and groups could be linked via the Internet so that we end up with a huge virtual conference with small and large f2f groups in virtual dialogue.

    This virtually linked dispersed f2f conference could be scheduled for a set number of days. Presentations are in text or recorded format and available for review prior to the f2f portion.

    The f2f conference days are reserved for discussions, and f2f discussions are managed so that they can be shared with the entire network.

    This is off the top of my head so I’m sure there are many different ways to create the inclusive conferences that are only possible with our new Internet technology. -Jim S

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