Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Magical Online Courses in Hawaii

Evidently, online courses at the University of Hawai'i (UH) are magically self-teaching - no faculty required!

Meet the new interim president of UH - David Lassner.  Formerly Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at UH, he's described as tech-savvy (obviously) and seems to be a nice enough guy (he loves hiking which is always a plus in my book).

In a recent fluff-piece profile on Hawaiian TV (video here), he's quoted as saying the following about building on the 1,000 online courses already offered at UH (starting around 1:20):

"It's how, um, one of the ways we can take on more students without having to increase our faculty at a linear pace." 

So who's developing and teaching these courses, Dr. Lassner, elves?

I've been teaching several online courses each academic year for well over a decade now, all developed from scratch.  I think I do a good job.  The courses are well-designed and a hell of a lot of work to teach (I would argue that they are MORE work to teach than face-to-face courses if you're doing it right).  At our community college, enrollment in online course sections is capped at 19 students - comparable to our smaller classroom sizes (we don't have many huge lecture hall style classes at our institution).  I maintain a presence in my online courses and I'm able to do so because each section has a manageable number of students.  Even with striving to make the online course as good as a face-to-face section, I know it's inferior (even though I teach some courses online, because I have to, you simply can't reproduce the classroom experience in the online environment).

Increasing the number of online course sections without increasing faculty means one of two things - outsourcing your online courses to for-profit organizations (which, in my opinion, are always far more interested in profit than in academic standards) or having massively-open online courses (MOOCs) which have a documented abysmal single-digit completion rate (since they're simply the hi-tech equivalent of 1950s style correspondence courses - just buy a textbook and learn calculus if you can teach yourself this way!).

If I could, I would task Dr. Lassner with one exercise.  Walk around the UH campus and find some seniors who've taken both online and face-to-face courses.  Ask them about the best course they ever took - the one that influenced them the most.  Ask them if it was a face-to-face course with an energetic, engaging professor or if it was an online course.

Administrators, especially those without much classroom experience, often naively view online courses as panaceas for declining budgets.  They're not - unless you're willing to compromise academic quality and no one wants to do that, right?

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