Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

The subject of this exchange (“Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .“) is near to my heart because it is a problem with which I have struggled for years. I have a somewhat different perspective, though. I chose Bonnie’s post for my reply because of its quotation of the Suzie Boss article.

For many years I have struggled to bring learning activities such as are described in that article to online education. I had to do so in many a different CMS, including WebCT, BlackBoard, eCollege, Moodle, Angel, uCompass, and Desire2Learn. My very first attempts, in 1995, were in pure HTML, writing the code in Pico and corresponding with students in Pine. (Anyone remember those?)

There is no question that the structures of CMS greatly interfered with my ability to do this, and I had to invent many “workarounds” to get something like what I wanted. I was also constrained by the concept of the least common denominator–maybe I had the technology to do something truly innovative, but if my students did not have the computing skills, tools, or bandwidth to participate, I could not use it.

I believe I was successful in doing this to a large extent, but that success uncovered a far larger problem.

When I was managing curriculum, both for an online high school and for a company in the private sector, I led the development of guidelines directing how to implement these kinds of thinking activities into curriculum housed in a CMS. The problem was finding course writers who could do it. I found that it was a rare course developer indeed who understood how to frame constructivist learning activities and authentic learning projects in the first place. If they could not do it in the classroom, there is no way they could do it within the structure of the CMS. For the most part, the teachers we hired started with the notion that a higher order thinking skill activity meant that students had to repeat given facts in a paragraph rather than check them off in multiple choice.

______________________________

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

______________________________

Once we got meaningful activities designed, we encountered the next problem. The teachers who taught the courses we designed had no idea how to facilitate that kind of learning. They expected that they would only have to grade completed assignments, not interact meaningfully and skillfully with the learning process throughout the course. Without such facilitation, the students floundered.

I recently looked at a BlackBoard-based college course in which the students were supposed to work collaboratively on a group project. It was not going well, and the student complained that this online education stuff just didn’t work. When I looked at it, though, I saw that the fault lay with neither online education in general nor BlackBoard in particular. The project was so poorly set up by the professor that it could not possibly succeed, either online or in the classroom. Given 10 minutes, I could have rewritten it into a format that would have worked well.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

**

Bonnie Bracey-SuttonBonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:

Lots of factors are involved. The way in which teachers are trained, and then there are the divides: the infrastructure divide, the digital divide, the depth of content divide, the cultural idea map on what constitutes knowledge and . . . the tools.

As someone else said, there are so many new ways of working, where is the time to meaningfully evaluate and use what works.

Click here for some suggestions for good practice.

But schools have a culture which is shaped by the leader of the school, most often the principal. So what happens in that space is a result of permission and understanding.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a “revolutionary change” in teacher training, in college programs that train teachers for the classroom, programs that are responsible for educating at least 80% of the country’s teachers. In a speech prepared for delivery today, Duncan said that traditional teacher-preparation programs do not give educators enough classroom experience and do not guide them in using data properly. Officials are predicting about 1 million teaching vacancies over the next four years as veteran baby boomer teachers retire, and teacher training must become a priority.

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:36 pm:

This speedy medium allows for the exchange of half-formed thoughts–even half-baked thoughts–which are subject to recall after others push back against them, so here goes with a half-formed half-baked thought stimulated by John Adsit’s fully thought out post.

The thought was stimulated by John’s reference to “constructivist activities.” I fancy myself a half-baked constructivist, yet I found myself bristling at John’s use of the term.

And after thinking through the other half of the thought, this is what I came up with:

When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.

That is, teachers may not be resisting change. They may be resisting change agents.

Looking at my old self honestly, I concluded that I would have resented Lisa Lane and John Adsit and Tom and Jim and Bonnie setting up shop as experts who were qualified to look at my courses, find them wanting, and proceed to describe how they should be changed.

(All this before I left the classroom and set myself up as a full-time change agent.)

Was I one of a kind, or one of a very large type?


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:03 pm:

I remember most of what you are talking about. My growth and ease in education began with a funded project called Cilt.org. Click here for the link. This will take a little time to look at but it was teachers, professors, research people, companies and even more. We were funded. I participated in several teams. The research findings are there. Time for new funding? Cloud Computing? Participatory Culture? What else?

Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .

encounters80Introduction: This encounter began with a comment posted by Lynn Zimmerman to Tom Preskett‘s latest article (“Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo“). ETC has published variations on this theme in the past, but it seems to be a zimmerman40problem that defies the collective wisdom of educators at all levels. Could it be that we’re barking up the wrong tree? If we assume, for a moment, that teachers aren’t the primary obstacle to change, then who or what is? Why? And what can we do to overcome this obstacle? -Jim S

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 am:

I’m trying to recall a period of my professional life when “teacher resistance to change” wasn’t used as the master explanation for the failure to improve education. Education seems almost equally divided between insisters on change and resisters to change.

So: some random, hypertextual questions and thoughts for Lisa, Tom, Lynn–and me.

If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Education budgets are in shock. Institutions have already moved to drastic economies, including the increasing use of poorly paid adjuncts to do most of the teaching. Will adjuncts using Web 2.0 pedagogies be able to instruct more students, fewer students, the same number?

If an institution using the old organizational structures offers 25 sections of English 101 to Freshman, should those sections teach from a common syllabus, or does each instructor set her own goals and choose her own Web 2.0 pedagogy?

Michael SandelA Harvard prof named Michael Sandel–you’ll find him on YouTube–teaches a course called “Justice” that attracts as many as a thousand students: so many that Harvard has to commandeer its theater building for the course. Apparently the students as well as the prof thinks the course generates “active learning,” despite these numbers. Can a lecture really generate “active learning”? (Sandel is now in the process of putting his course online.)

It’s been said before–by me among others–that it’s more useful to think of the system as eliciting the resistance rather than any one element of the system, like the teacher.

Churchill, you remember, started with the building. “We shape our building,” he said, “and then our buildings shape us.” Lecture halls, classrooms, offices, dorms: those structures resist change at least as insistently as teachers.

When teachers leave the existing system–when campus faculty become part of an all-distance learning initiative, for example–their “resistance to change” often ends.

We need to consider changing our explanations for teacher behavior. And that might require overcoming our own resistance to change.

jims40Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:49 pm:

Steve Eskow: If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

Good question, Steve. The answer’s yes and no. The underlying issue in online learning seems to be ease of use. On the one hand, CMSs (Course Management Systems) such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai are responses to the problem of learning how to move courses online, either fully or partially. The assumption is that an integrated system, or a CMS, is the best method. It’s the Swiss Army knife approach, the all-in-one. Learn one system, and you have all the functions that you’ll need to teach and learn online.

The problem with this all-in-one approach is that users are locked in to a limited set of features. If we compare teaching to building a house, then a CMS is a closed construction system that provides basic tools and materials. The instructor, as carpenter, quickly discovers the limits of her/his tools and resources. After a while, it’s obvious that the house can take on only a limited number of shapes — and it ends up as a little box in a virtual landscape of boxes that all look just the same.

Teachers are, if anything, fiercely independent. They want to own their courses, and they do so by selecting their own required textbooks and resources and developing their own syllabi and learning activities. They demand the freedom to set up their own schedules, assignments, learning activities, and grading systems. They often demand a specific room in a specific time slot. This is what makes teaching an art and so personally fulfilling. The CMSs, for all their purported simplicity, run counter to this independent spirit.

On the other hand, a completely open system such as Web 2.0 is, at least for the novice, bewildering. Where to begin to build a course? How? In comparison, a CMS is a haven of order and simplicity.

From the perspective of an administrator, a CMS is a simple and logical way to move classes online. The alternative is, apparently, chaos.

But is this true?

I’d argue that it’s not. A quick exploration will reveal that all the functions available in a CMS are also available on the web. The difference is that they are not roofed under a single CMS. In a very real sense, the world’s largest, most flexible, most open, and most powerful CMS is the web itself. Instead of just one format for discussions, you have scores; instead of just one format for submitting or presenting papers and projects, you have countless; instead of just a handful of ways to present course material, you have a nearly infinite number.

The point is that once you’ve seen what’s available in the world’s market place, there’s no going back to the single store in your neighborhood.

From the perspective of IT folks who are assigned the task of guiding neophytes into the brave new e-world, the prospect of putting all their effort into a single closed system versus a nearly infinite variety in an open system is very attractive.

But looked at another way, this one-answer approach is shortsighted and ultimately noneducative. If learning is empowering, then this approach stifles learning. In the end, you have instructors and students using a very limited subset of what the web has to offer, and the transfer of learning from the single CMS to the worldwide web is nil. The web remains a scary, chaotic place, and the users are back at square one when it comes to web proficiency.

Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

In the end, the student and teachers learn to be at home on the web rather than in the limited confines of a single, closed CMS (CCMS). It’s the difference between being at home in the world and being at home in your neighborhood. Opportunities for creativity and development are unlimited. The outcome is empowerment of the student and the teacher.

Are there problems in guiding faculty in the use of this open approach? There are, but they are far from being insurmountable. In fact, the process can be quite simple. It’s the same ones we use to teach general skills that need to be applied in different ways for different settings. But that’s for another discussion.

Are there other problems, such as security? Yes, of course, but, again, solutions aren’t all that difficult to develop.

When it comes to technology, freedom of choice is a critical factor. Examples abound. All we need to do is look at our choices of cars, cell phones, entertainment, travel, computers, software, etc. The movement is always toward more options than less. We can expect no less in education, in teaching and learning.

Steve, I was planning to respond to some of your other points, but I’ll need to do that some other time.

bbracey40Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 12:55 pm:

I enjoyed the GAID Global Forum in Monterrey, Mexico, because every time a person blamed it on teachers. I queried:

Who decides what the curriculum is that teachers use and what flexibility is there in your system?

Who creates the infrastructure for teaching and learning in digital ways and what is the way, the method of teacher professional development?

Is it like a vaccinatioin — one shot and that’s it, or is it sustained and supported?

Access to information: Is it there? What speeds are there? So many teachers don’t have broadband at home.

What access do teachers have (in the US, too) to broadband and the rich resources on the web? Do they have it in school and at home?

What time is allowed to update practice and to learn new media?

GAID2009

The professors from Latin America were saying that the computer should not replace the teacher. I asked how would that be possible or do you mean you have a problem with elearning initiatives while you are being webcast? Why one technology and not the other?

Infrastructure, content, community of practice and support, sustained support for devices and programs, use of tools like T Pack, understanding of Bloom’s taxonomy, digital understanding of cyberbullying and resources — who makes these decisions and are they known?

There is a lot more. What really gets my goat is that other people tell us how to teach and then when it does not work we get the blame. For example, the last 8 years of no science and all of the groups that have gone to Washington complaining about it.

Ms. Spelling killed the teaching of science with NCLB. Example: the teachers in Washington, DC, following the practices that DC accepted have now been weighed by Ms Rhee and found wanting. So who is to blame when schools don’t have a website or teachers don’t have email. Hello?

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:08 pm:

Great questions. I even get bewildered from time to time with so much on my plate. I was single and so time was not a problem. These days I don’t have the time, though I am an eager advocate of what works. Some things are not to my liking, but in a K-12 school system we usually don’t get to make those kinds of decisions.

Some informed practice requires teacher involvement, reflection, and understanding. Everyone tells me teachers can’t program. That is not true, but programing takes an investment of time and support.

Here is an interesting take from an Edutopia Blog: “Let’s Get Real About Innovation in Our Schools,” by Suzie Boss 10/12/09.

Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 1:40 pm:

I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim.

One question occurs immediately.

Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

On the other hand. . .and there’s always another hand:

The system is professional, tested, flexible. . .and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Jim Shimabukuro, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:28 pm:

Steve Eskow: Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine. Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize?

Good question, Steve. Yes, I think my choice of WordPress (WP) for ETC fits with my views on using the web as an open CMS. ETC uses WP as part of the web — not part of a closed CMS. WP, as used by ETC, is available and accessible to everyone. Anyone can use it to set up a blog for an endless number of purposes. Use it in ETC and become proficient, and the tool is also yours to use for your own purposes. Transfer of learning? Yes, definitely. And it’s free.

I explored four different blogs before deciding on WP. Two were part of packaged systems, a social network (Ning) and a closed CMS (Sakai). The fourth was freely available on the web, Blogger, which is easier to use but not as stable or powerful as WP.

There are other blog programs, but for me, it came down to Blogger and WP. I chose the latter. If there are better open web, free blog platforms, I’d like to explore them.

Is it perfect? Definitely not. But improvements keep coming, and in time, it ought to address many of its shortcomings.

WP doesn’t have the feature you want — email notification of a reply or post — but it probably will someday.

We could shift ETC into the Ning social network (SN), and that would give us the feature you want, I think. I’m not sure how powerful Ning’s blog is. My first impression wasn’t very good. Or we could pour ETC into a Ning discussion forum setup to get the feature you want. But in my mind, we win a battle but lose the war. There are so many more advantages to ETC in the WP environment than in Ning.

This is not to say that WP doesn’t need to beef up its discussion features. It does. But my guess is that WP isn’t fully aware of the potential of discussion in blogs. In time, though, hopefully it’ll learn and turn the discussion feature into a powerful tool that surpasses that found in Ning.

WP’s discussion feature is on a par with most open web blogs that feature posts by selected writers. If a reader comments on an article, he/she doesn’t usually receive notification of comments from other writers. This notification feature seems to be standard for SNs, but not for blogs. But this could change.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question, Steve, but if I haven’t, please let me know.

keller40Harry Keller, 21 Oct. 2009, 2:48 pm: In public schools in this country, teachers are the problem and the solution. Because so many classroom decisions are left to the teachers, they can stymie reform and innovation. These days they are underpaid and overworked. When your school sits in a difficult neighborhood and your class size has ballooned, you are a miracle worker if you can have any learning take place. It’s not particularly surprising that they resist new ideas. Besides, many new things get funded for just a year or two. The teachers put in the time to learn about these things and then find that they’ve wasted their time when they disappear.

Teachers are the solution for plenty of reasons that I don’t have time to explore now.

I’m getting ready for CSTA (California Science Teachers Association) and have lots more to do before I leave.

CSTA2009


claude40Claude Almansi, 23 Oct. 2009 12:05 am:

[Steve Eskow, 21 Oct. 2009, 10:38 PM:] If an institution dropped an organizing framework like Blackboard or Moodle, and creative instructors used their own knowledge of Web 2.0 or 3.0 to shape their pedagogy, would the students taking five courses have to learn five learning systems?

[James N Shimabukuro, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:49 AM:] Returning to your question, Steve: Yes, the students taking five online classes in a web-wide or open CMS (OCMS) would have to learn five different OCMSs. But the critical difference is that all of the parts of the different OCMSs are on the web and the student will quickly learn how to categorize and use them. It’s like getting your bearings in a strange city or highway system. You learn that they all have the same features, and it’s just a matter of adapting to slight variations.

Personal experience: in 2007 Università della Svizzera Italiana foresaw an “intensive French module” for their Master course in Intercultural communication, but they have re-used the same URL for the 2008-10 course), to be given in French and English. I was put in charge of this module (which took place Apr. 16-20) rather late, and with indications about number of participants varying from 3 to 15 until the day before it began. Actually, there were four participants, all already inserted in professional life.

When I asked for access to the Master’s Moodle CMS to store info so that students could concentrate on oral activities without having to take notes all the time, the organizers told me I couldn’t because training in the use of the CMS was only foreseen for after the language modules. I thought it was odd to have to train folks in using (managing maybe, but using?) Moodle, but there was no time to argue, so I made a wiki instead (click here to see what it looked like when we started).

When I showed the wiki to the students, their first reaction was, “Why not the Moodle CMS?” I explained, they raised their eyes to the ceiling, then went at the wiki. None of them had ever actively used one before, but it took them under 5 minutes to get the hang of this one. They liked the idea of not having to take notes all the time, particularly the two (a grand 50%) who had broken their writing arm.

I guess nowadays, a new web app is no problem either for younger students who grew up with Web 2.0 things that are all similar due to their XML basis – see Michael Wesch’s classic video “Web 2.0 . . . The Machine is Us/ing Us” (1).

[Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 1:40 AM:] I have to brood some about your provocative comments, Jim. One question occurs immediately. Does your thinking about LMS’s and free choice square with your picking a particular blogging program for us to use? I, for one, with my limitations, find much to dislike with the program: I don’t like how it handles replies, and that it doesn’t automatically notify me via email when someone replies to a piece of mine.

(en passant: apart from the RSS solutions I mentioned in the thread about notifications, another work around is to make a comment yourself and check the box for “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”)

Isn’t WordPress exactly the kind of system you criticize? On the other hand . . . and there’s always another hand: The system is professional, tested, flexible . . . and allows you and the rest of us to concentrate on ideas rather than systems and technology.

Blogs can be used as LMS, but wikis – which nowadays are just as easy to use – are definitely more adapted, because they don’t have the linear constrictions of blogs (2). Moreover, wikis keep the history of changes, so if you or a student bungle/s, you can always revert to the former version – most free wiki platforms enable download as a zipped file in 3 clicks of the latest version of the whole thing, some even of all the history. Fewer bloging platforms offer this possibility.

__________

(1) If you’re already using intranets in your work: re “The Machine is Us/ing Us” video (also see the thread in this list about folks annotating stuff “on” one’s page with tools like Sidewiki and Diigo): there are several Diigo annotations on the video page, collectible in 2 clicks – including one by Wesch himself about adding the video to Mojiti (where the video actually disappeared under several layers of comments, which you could fortunately disable if you wanted to see the video).

(2) These linear constrictions can be bypassed: in 2005, I made a mirror of a Tunisian Human Rights site that was being blocked by censorship in Tunisia, in a blogger.com blog: I made a “table of content” entry I dated something like 2100 so that it’d stay on top, then linked in it to the other entries where I copied the pages of the site. But a blog is short for web log, and logs are intrinsically linear, because they are time-based, like diaries. Wikis *offer the possibility* of a time-based reading, through the history feature, but they don’t impose it.

Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

According to Lisa M. Lane, in “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching” (First Monday, 5 Oct. 2009):

Course management systems (CMSs), used throughout colleges and universities for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes, are not pedagogically neutral shells for course content. They influence pedagogy by presenting default formats designed to guide the instructor toward creating a course in a certain way. This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT) . . . . Blackboard “tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content,” and its default is to support easy uploading and text entry to achieve that goal.

I’ve always approached this from the opposite angle and said that VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are designed for the current education market rather than to improve or change practice in any way. So it’s file repositories and grading books all the way. Remember, unlike Web 2.0, many of these VLEs are commercial products and, in business, you give the customers what they want, and customers don’t want their pedagogy challenged. You also have to remember that a lot of the collaborative tools have been added on as VLEs react to what is going on out in the real world. But when they are add-ons they don’t really impact the intrinsic design or structure. They could redesign as new versions, but they don’t. Certainly, each “new” version of Blackboard is so simliar to the last that it’s almost indistinguishable. Maybe the consistency is important to them, but it’s a real missed opportunity. By the way, I’m quoting Lisa’s use of CMS, but I use LMS (Learning Management System) and VLE. I steer clear of CMS because it can get mixed up with Content Management System.

A CMS must be designed around a central pedagogy: consistency of interface relies on consistency of approach. It is only important to recognize that the interface of any software reflects its intent.

I’d not thought about it in these terms before. Although I agree with this, I’m not sure that Blackboard is designed with any particular pedagogy in mind. I think it’s more a case of designing around the prevailing perception of what teaching is. Moodle is deliberately different. The collaborative tools are much more prominent, and the grading system is rubbish, probably deliberately so.

Lisa then characterises most educators as “web novices.” She says:

These users were trying to reduce their cognitive load by limiting their use of the software, while Web experts were able to keep their goal in mind easily while searching more deeply.

And:

When faced with a different interface or online environment, novices are inclined to utilize only the aspects they understand from a non-Web context.

It’s a double-whammy. First, you have a majority whose personal ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills don’t allow them to easily explore and experiment with the full range of what a VLE has to offer. Second, you have a majority who are content, if not happy, with the prevailing pedagogy of current teaching. Thus, there is no desire or compulsion to embrace, explore, or experiment with software that challenges this. I also feel the knowledge of pedagogy within education is pretty limited, but I don’t base this on any hard facts. Anyway, both these issues are massive barriers to the adoption and use of Web 2.0 type tools . If you’ve read my articles in ETC and my blog, then you’ll know how sad that makes me.

More attacks on the Blackboard functionality:

Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time, rather than space . . . . Blackboard’s default organization accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface.

You can, of course, change this, which is what I often advise my academics to do. But why have it like this? What it does validate and reinforce is the notion that content, course news, and grading is all the VLE is good for. It’s not for teaching or learning, but to retrieve information. It’s a passive rather than active relationship, Web 1.0 not Web 2.0.

She continues:

There is more satisfaction in mastering a few elements than in experimenting. Instructors move very slowly into features of the CMS that support less-instructivist models, and experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expanive use of system features.

So we have a situation where educators struggle to get to grips with what a VLE can do AND they don’t really want to anyway. That’s not good.

Interview: Steve Cooper of TechUofA

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Steve Cooper is founder of Tech University of America (TechUofA) and a former Army education trainer. The following interview was conducted via email from September 8 to 12.

JS: How did you come up with the idea of offering college courses for a flat monthly fee (e.g., $99 for all the classes a student wants to take) and how long have you been doing this?

SC: All of the courses that we are developing will be free and open to everyone. However, only when students want to begin a transcript and earn an academic certificate or degree is there  a $99/month that allows them to take ten courses per year. We only use free etextbooks/resources so there aren’t any other major fees associated with earning a degree.

While building several online university programs I watched as they artificially raised tuition to the student loan cap. I was one of the few for-profit CEOs who didn’t have an MBA or wasn’t a banker so I looked at things much differently. In 2007 when I took over as CEO of a for-profit university, I decided to lower tuition in order to make higher education accessible to more people. We immediately began to enroll students from Africa and several other countries. I found that if you have the same quality of faculty as other well established schools and run a transparent program then people will attend your school if you lower your tuition. At the same time I started to see the popularity of social networking sites explode while the economy started to weaken. I then realized that three things were hot: social networking sites, online learning, and lower or zero-tuition.

Steve Cooper1

Early in 2008, I used to drive over to University of Phoenix Online and sit in the parking lot in search of inspiration. I would sit there for hours watching the sunset, hoping to soak up some of their creative energies, while asking myself, “What would Dr. John Sperling, the founder of University of Phoenix, do today if he were to do it all over again?” I concluded that the first thing he would do is take education to the masses as he did years ago by bringing education from the ivory tower to the community in office buildings then eventually via distance learning. I think one of his greatest keys to success was leveraging existing resources rather than trying to force people to change. For example, he didn’t try to make the corporate offices where they held classes look “academic” nor did he develop some goofy learning management system to deliver their distance learning courses. Rather, they used the existing business offices and Outlook Express. People were familiar with regular office buildings (not intimidating like a college campus) and it was convenient. Also, most adults have used Outlook or Outlook Express so they lessened the learning curve by using systems students would be familiar with — and if they weren’t, chances were that someone they knew could help them — as opposed to building some esoteric and irrelevant elearning system that wasn’t intuitive to adult learners.

So, I eventually thought that if Dr. Sperling were to start over he would bring higher education to the masses. However, today the masses are in social networking sites. At this point I still had not seen a social networking site but realized that if they were generating that much buzz there had to be a reason. I logged into one and instantly said to myself that this is the ideal online classroom! A week later I directed one of my staff members to teach a course in a social networking site, PerfSpot.com, since I knew their leadership and found them to be dedicated to a global reach — and it was absolutely amazing! Social networking sites allow the faculty and students to control their online learning environment (end-user innovation) and can do all the things that conventional learning management systems can’t or won’t allow such as video, audio, showing photos of the users, widgets, etc.

Moreover, using social networking sites to deliver college courses greatly reduces our cost of delivering education since we pay neither learning management fees, which can be as high as $120 per student per course, nor technical staff for support. In essence, it’s a win-win-win because the social networking sites benefit from having more users (our students), we as a college gain by not having any learning management fees, and our faculty and students win because they get to control their learning environment.

JS: Are TechUofA courses accredited? If yes, by whom? If not, is lack of accreditation a problem?

SC: No. Tech University of America is not accredited. We must be operating for two years before we are eligible to apply for accreditation, and we intend to apply as soon as we are eligible in 2011. Since we are a start-up school we have a lot of R&D, yet, at the same time, we are a business so we have to actively seek ways to grow our student body. In order to better serve new schools as well as their prospective students, I believe that accrediting bodies should have a provision that allows for new schools to be conditionally accredited before they start offering courses and then heavily monitor them until they are accredited. In the meantime, we have to operate for two years prior to seeking accreditation, which does offer us time to improve our academic processes while fine tuning the operations of our university.

JS: Are TechUofA classes completely online? Or are students required to participate in F2F (face-to-face) activities at some point during a course? If not, is this lack of F2F contact a problem?

SC: All of our courses and programs are delivered 100% online, and we do not plan on any residency requirements. Recent studies have shown that online learners can attain the same, if not higher, learning outcomes than their F2F counterparts. Having said that, I do think that F2F interaction is obviously valuable. To this end we are exploring several ways that we can integrate various optional study programs that will bring some of our students who live around the world together for meaningful experiential and F2F learning.

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Steve Cooper: While I fully agree with Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price . . . that anything that becomes digital inevitably becomes free, I do think that we will see a hierarchy emerge within online learning: we will have free or very low priced schools, then more expensive programs, and finally exclusive online programs for the very wealthy . . . .

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JS: Is it possible for a student to complete a degree or certificate at TechUofA? Would this be a TechUofA degree or a degree offered by a college that relies on TechUofA courses?

SC: We will be offering certificate programs as well as associate, bachelor, and master degree programs in business management with several concentrations in fields such as criminal justice, sustainability, construction management, computer science, and sports management. However, we are beginning to partner with several colleges that are interested in using our courses — in these cases students who are enrolled in a partner school and complete our courses would receive credit/degrees from their school, not Tech University of America. In this case we will serve as a blackboard, if you will, with our courses hosted in Facebook, and partner schools will use them at their discretion.

JS: What is the instructor-to-student ratio for your classes? If the ratio is far greater than for F2F classes, how do TechUofA instructors manage the large number of students?

SC: Our student-to-faculty ratio is 1:20 for most courses, and 1:25 for the rest, which is about the average for most online schools, and considerably less than large research universities where ratios of 1:500 are not uncommon.

JS: If students enter a course at any time and exit at any time, I’d imagine that record keeping may be a major problem. Does the instructor monitor all of her/his students? Or is this managed by someone else?

SC: Non-degree seeking students, those who are just using the course materials, may come and go as they please. For our degree-seeking students we have definite start and end dates for each course, and each course is eight weeks in length. Since our courses have less than 25 students, our faculty are able to manage each course.

JS: Are TechUofA instructor salaries comparable to that of F2F institutions? Do you have full- and part-time instructors?

SC: We engage adjunct faculty members to teach our courses. They must have a graduate degree from an accredited school, with practical work experience in their field of study. We also require that our faculty have teaching experience at a regionally accredited school. This allows us to demonstrate that the quality of our faculty is comparable to that of accredited schools.

We use a variable pay model, with each faculty member earning $50-$75 per student. This incentivizes faculty to teach more students per course and is fair because the more they work, the more they earn. At the same time it helps us contain our costs since we are not paying faculty $2,000 when there are only four students in a course. The fact that we do not cap the amount faculty can earn means that they can do quite well. Also, our model encourages faculty to use their own videos in YouTube, social networking sites, etc., which can increase the likelihood that they will be able to secure a textbook contract because faculty who can demonstrate a substantial following these days are highly sought after by publishers. Finally, given that we charge $99 per month, you can see that 50-75% of our revenues go to faculty pay as they are the most critical part of our team.

JS: Does TechUofA rely on staff from countries where salaries and wages are much lower? If yes, is there a problem in quality?

SC: No. However, as we grow our international student body, we will explore hiring staff who reside in countries where we have a large student base so that our staff can relate well to our students, thus serving them better than we can here in Phoenix, Arizona. I must add that I personally am not convinced that outsourcing labor to other countries always saves a considerable amount of money, especially when you consider the inevitable travel, loss of business from language barriers, rising costs associated with outsourcing, etc.

JS: Is TechUofA international? In other words, do students come from many different nations? In U.S. TechUofA classes, are international students charged a higher fee?

SC: We are proud that we have had many inquiries from international students, and in our model everyone pays the same fees. However, we are working on raising money so that we can offer scholarships to people in developing countries so they do not have pay anything to earn a degree from Tech University of America. Also, we are working on building a networking system that allows more fortunate students to sponsor (pay for tuition) for students who cannot afford the $99 a month to earn a degree. We believe this will lead to several meaningful relationships between our students.

JS: Are services such as TechUofA growing in numbers and popularity? Do you foresee a time when the TechUofA way of providing classes will be the dominant means of earning a diploma, degree, or certificate? Will this be at the K-12 or college level? Or both?

SC: Absolutely. Click here for the best overview of this movement which refers to us as EduPunks. Yes, I do see a day when the Tech University of America model will be the prevailing way of providing online courses, and by this I mean using social networking sites as the learning management system rather than Blackboard, using free etextbooks rather than traditional textbooks, etc., but I do not think all schools will have all their courses offered for free and only charge $99 a month for degree seeking students. While I fully agree with Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, and his assertion that anything that becomes digital inevitably becomes free, I do think that we will see a hierarchy emerge within online learning: we will have free or very low priced schools, then more expensive programs, and finally exclusive online programs for the very wealthy that are as expensive as, if not moreso, than Harvard. At the same time I predict that we will only have 50 state schools – one for each state – that has football teams, fraternities, etc., and the rest of the students will attend private, for profit schools, either onground or online, especially given the rise of online high schools. I have been told there are more than one million online high schools students in America.

JS: Is student cheating a problem in TechUofA classes? If not, how is it handled?

SC: Student cheating, plagiarism, program integrity and student authentication are all serious challenges for all schools. The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 requires that a school that offers online courses have procedures in place to ensure that that students who enroll in a course are the same students who take the course and ultimately receive credits. While the HEOA doesn’t apply to us since we will not utilize Title IV funds (federal student loans), we are fully committed to ensuring program integrity. In addition to having a required assignment on personal accountability and plagiarism in our introductory course, have engaged CSIdentity’s Voice Verified product to ensure that the student who enrolls in Tech University of America is the same student who is in a particular course, completes course assisgnments, and ultimately receives academic credit. This is done by randomly verifying the biometrics of their voice throughout their entire course of studies, and the Voice Verified solution is more accurate than a fingerprint.

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SC: Sure, I think it is important to point out that Facebook, which is central to our model at Tech University of Ameirca, was created by students, for students, and it is fitting that Facebook is finally becoming the leading learning management system. I predict that within 2-5 years, Facebook will buy Blackboard and move all of its users into Facebook..

A Digital Educator in Poland

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

During this Spring 2009 semester, I am teaching at a major university in a large city in Poland. My students are 3rd, 4th , and 5th year students , most of whom plan to be English teachers. Technology is playing a role in this experience in some expected and unexpected ways.

First of all, I have easy access to the folks back home. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992-1994 and, during that time, the communications infrastructure was rudimentary.  Many people did not have telephones, myself included. The couple of times I called my mother in the U.S. I had to go to the post office and order the call. Then I had to wait until the overseas operator was able to connect to me. When I returned to Poland in 2000 the cell phone boom had occurred, and Internet service was on its heels. Now with Skype and IM and all the other communication devices at our fingertips, it is almost as though I never left home. This easy accessibility is actually a mixed blessing. The chair of my department has been able to give me tasks to do, even though I am several thousands of miles away.

Although I travel quite a bit and try to journal, I am rarely successful keeping up the journaling process. This time, I decided to set up a “private” social network on Ning (www.ning.com) for my friends. I recorded a video about my impending trip. I put up links to my Polish university and other interesting places. I have been posting pictures of my adventures and have written blogs to keep my friends informed. I think that having an audience other than myself is helping me keep up the process.

On the downside has been the lack of technology available to my students here. The building where I teach has one lecture room, reserved only for large lecture classes, that has a computer and projector, but no Internet access. The technology guy here did show me how to download some clips that I was planning to use from YouTube (using mediaconverter.org), so I was able to work polandaround the no Internet access issue. I have one class of about 40 students and that is the only one allowed to use that room. Unfortunately this week when I was planning to show a DVD and a YouTube clip, the system was not functioning. For my other classes, I have had to re-think how I teach them, taking into account that I would not be able to use the videos and PowerPoints that I usually use with my classes.

Another issue that arose is that none of my students have ever done an online discussion. I use online discussions once or twice a semester when I have to go to a conference. The university here does not have a built-in classroom management system like WebCT or Blackboard, so I set up a discussion on Ning. Because I did not have Internet access in the classroom, I had to take “snapshots” of the screens to show the students what to do. (The computer system was functioning that day.) Then I had to deal with the students’ anxiety about doing this activity. Most of the students participated, and I must say that the ones who did participate did a really good job, better than many of my students in the US. However, another professor has referred several times to the week I “missed” class. She obviously has no idea of how time-intensive setting up and conducting an online discussion is for the teacher or the students.

On the other hand, I was recently at a symposium in another part of Poland and technology, including Internet access, was available in many classrooms. This particular university also specializes in providing services for students with vision and hearing disabilities. They have special adaptive equipment in several classrooms to aid these students’ learning.

So far I have experienced the advantages of technology for staying in touch as well as the challenges it poses when there is little or no access in the classroom. I feel a little bit like I have fallen into Dean McLaughlin’s short novel, Hawk Among the Sparrows (http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/dean-mclaughlin/hawk-among-sparrows.htm), which is about a pilot in a modern fighter jet with nuclear missiles and technological guidance systems who goes through a time warp to World War I. None of his highly sophisticated weaponry will work in this low-tech time period so that, in the end, the only way he can be effective is to use his jet as a projectile and crash into the enemy’s installation. I certainly hope that is not my fate!