A Philosopher's Blog

Online Classes

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2017

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My adopted state of Florida has mandated that public universities offer 40% of undergraduate classes online by 2025. Some Florida universities have already jumped on the online bandwagon, perhaps because they can impose an extra distance learning fee on top of the standard tuition cost. The state legislature recently capped the fee at $30, although some schools already offer lower tuition and fees for students enrolled only in online classes. Governor Scott has contended that online classes should cost less than in-person classes. Proponents of the fee contend that it is needed to fund the development of online classes. This situation raises two important questions. One is the question of whether there should be such an emphasis on online classes. The other is the question of whether a special fee should be charged for such classes. I’ll begin with the question of the fee.

As noted above, the main justification for charging a distance learning fee for online classes is that the extra money is needed to develop such classes. This presumably includes the cost of developing the content of the class itself and the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it.

Since I have taught hybrid classes for years, I can attest to the fact that properly preparing an online class requires significantly more effort than properly preparing a traditional classroom class. One obvious factor is that an online class should include online media, such as videos and audio recordings. Creating such media is time consuming and requires both technical and media skills.  Developing these skills requires training. Because more labor and training must be put into preparing an online class, it is reasonable to charge the extra fee.

One obvious counter to this is to point to my own experience: while I have undergone training for creating online classes, the entire workload of preparing my online classes has fallen on me and I do not get any extra pay to do this extra work.  This is not unusual—my workload and performance are disconnected from my compensation. If this same practice is followed by other schools, then they would be hard pressed to justify the extra fees—unless they are fully justified by the cost of training faculty to do the extra work at no extra compensation. There is also the obvious fact that students do not pay an extra fee when they take a class from better paid professors, even though the professor thus imposes a greater cost on the school.

In terms of arguing against the fee, there is the claim that students who take online classes graduate faster than students who do not. Since Florida is pushing hard to reduce the time it takes to graduate, providing a disincentive to take online classes would run counter to that goal. There are also various financial arguments. One is that shifting classes online will reduce the need for classroom construction, which will save the state money (but cost construction jobs). If online classes save the state money, it makes it hard to argue that the extra fee is needed. Rather, this would support the claim that there should not be such a special fee.

While I rarely agree with Governor Scott, I do agree with him that there should not be a fee. I would hold to this position even if I was given extra compensation for teaching online classes—although I do not think that would ever happen. I now turn to the question of whether there should be a push for online classes.

One obvious concern about entirely online classes is that they have a significantly higher failure rate than hybrid and traditional classes. In some rare cases students forget they are even enrolled in online classes; but that also seems to happen in traditional classes. To be honest, classes are sometimes poorly designed by faculty who are struggling to operate well outside of their technical skills. Poorly designed or poorly run classes can certainly contribute to student failure.

There is also the fact that students are also often ill-equipped to learn from online classes. Speaking with students from various schools about online classes, the usual refrain I hear involves the poor quality of many of the courses and how hard it is to learn even in a well-designed class. Students also tend to admit that they are less motivated in online classes. Because of these factors, it makes sense that failure rates would be higher in online classes. There are, of course, some excellent online classes and students who can adapt effectively to online learning.

A second concern, which ties into the first, is the quality of learning in online classes. Obviously, poorly designed and poorly taught classes will leave students on their own when it comes to learning. But, even for well-designed and well-taught classes there is still the concern about student learning. Colleagues of mine have made the reasonable point that some classes would work poorly online, even if everyone was doing their best. To be fair, a similar complaint can be made about traditional and hybrid classes: how much do students really learn and how much do they retain? One might suspect that the answer to both is “very little.”

Faculty have also expressed some concern that the rise of online classes will mean that they will be replaced by “robots.” That is, automated online classes will be substituted for faculty taught classes, perhaps with graduate students or other low-cost labor hired to do such tasks as grading papers and answering questions. Some might see this as a good thing: not having to pay as many faculty could allow for lower tuition (or greater profits and administrator salaries). There would also be, to some, a benefit in having course content closely controlled by administrators.

On the positive side, online classes do allow students far more convenience. For example, people who work full-time can work online classes into their schedule even when they would be unable to attend classes on campus during normal times. Students can also take classes at universities far from where they live (although most online students do live near the campus) or simply avoid the hassle of trying to park on campus.

Because of these factors, my opinion on online classes is split. On the one hand, the flexibility that online classes offer is a significant plus. On the minus side, I do have concerns about the educational experience students might experience as well as the high failure rates that often plague such classes. That said, I do think that the failure rate problem can be addressed as can concerns about the quality of education in online classes.



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16 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 29, 2017 at 8:33 am

  2. CoffeeTime said, on December 30, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    On looking for data, I find little. I do come across suggestions that completion for online courses tends to be 10%-15% lower than for traditional courses. I also see suggestions that many who sign up for online courses do not have appropriate prerequisites, and would need extra tutorial support and/or remedial classes in English or Math to benefit. Others just drop out.

    This is very weak data, but if I assume for the purpose of discussion that it is true, then the obvious inference is that an extra 10% or so of people will sign up for a course because it is online, figuring that they would try it, but without a strong commitment and without high expectations of finishing it.

    This seems to do no damage. The people who drop out have lost their payment, but it was payment for a course they knew they were unlikely to complete. They took a chance with their eyes open, and it didn’t work out. Fair enough.

    It would be interesting to see a large data set comparing people who were taking traditional classes and online classes at the same time, and evaluations of prerequisites for people who completed and didn’t complete these courses.

  3. WTP said, on December 31, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    I think one can get a very good on-line education from videos by JP Sears.

    • WTP said, on December 31, 2017 at 1:53 pm

      And did I mention? They’re free!

  4. TJB said, on December 31, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    I’ll bite.

    • dh said, on January 1, 2018 at 2:04 pm

      There has been a fair amount of research showing that in a traditional “lecture-based” class, students will have retained about 40% of the material by the time they walk out the door. By the time the next class rolls around, that number hovers around 17%.

      Some professors at my university have done some long-term studies on embracing technology in and out of the classroom, challenging themselves and students with interactive engagement, experimenting with contributory models that in some cases provide for anonymity that helps to overcome demographics-based “academic shyness” , and supplementary online exercises that promote focused social-media community and many other forays into innovative approaches to education.

      For those who want to come to class, sit in the back, turn in their homework, and get their degree, I think that Father Guido Sarducci’s approach is excellent. These people can fill in the right box on the Civil Service exam, not have to worry about job security, and ultimately get a nice, fat, Defined Benefit retirement plan.

      Others, of course, can engage with ideas and excellence, and make a difference in the world.

      (In the town where my kids went to high school, there was a big scandal surrounding the government-appointed Superintendent of Schools. Apparently, his PhD degree was purchased from an online degree-mill, and he was, at least formally, completely unqualified for his $200,000/year position. Of course he was removed, and there were many articles and op-eds about the situation in the paper … but he was not fired. He was “retired”. With his pension.)

      • WTP said, on January 1, 2018 at 3:07 pm

        Are you old enough to remember this one? My teachers all discouraged CLEP. Wonder why…

        • TJB said, on January 1, 2018 at 8:12 pm

          Good one. Really worked the memory banks.

          • WTP said, on January 2, 2018 at 10:55 am

            There was another one, couldn’t find it on line, where Lincoln is sitting in a classroom and at the end is answering the teacher in response to a question to what the Kansas-Nebraska act was about.

  5. TJB said, on December 31, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    I thought for a second that “Youniverse” was “Yoni-verse” 😛

  6. dh said, on January 1, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    I posted a long-ish comment on this topic, but it hasn’t shown up for several hours; I’ve refreshed my browser and deleted my cache, but it’s not up here … Michael? When I try to re-post, I get an error saying that it’s a duplicate post ..

  7. dh said, on January 4, 2018 at 11:33 am

    You ask some good questions about a situation that is, in my view, extremely poorly thought out – and is a fine illustration of how a government bureaucracy can inhibit creativity, growth, innovation and success. You have my sympathies.

    My first comment is, “What is the reasoning behind the mandate?” Based on what you have said, and partially based on what I understand government to be, I see this as being entirely politically motivated. I don’t know Scott, I am unfamiliar with Florida politics, I don’t know if there is an election coming up – but this has all the markings of a decision geared to writing a story that will make for a good campaign byline, without regard to quality, improvement, innovation, or result.

    There seems to have been no real cost/benefit analysis of this at all. How are tuition costs arrived at? The fact that the discussion seems to be around whether or not it is “right” to charge this fee as some kind of ethical issue without any kind of financial analysis, within the context of “some universities offering lower tuition further underscores the thought that someone in the bureaucracy decided that this would make a great story for a campaign, then just issued the mandate from on high – “I don’t care how you do it, and I’m not interested in any research about whether it will improve state education or not, nor am I interested in how you do it – just get it done!”

    Of equal concern are several statements you made about your own situation. You are offered no additional compensation for the extra up front work this takes; the training is up to you, and there is no correlation between your workload and performance and your compensation. That’s the perfect bureaucratic model – you have your job, you have tenure and cannot be fired, there are no checks or balances on your performance, you have no external incentive to rise above, to achieve more, to produce an excellent body of work, or to produce talented, motivated, educated students who can and will change the world. As an educator myself, I find this horrifying. You do what you are told by the governor – whether you take on the task begrudgingly or with great energy is irrelevant to the mandate as long as you get it done. You keep your nose clean until you are 62 or whatever, then you can collect Social Security and a nice defined-benefit pension plan.

    Like the disconnect between your performance and your compensation, the tuition and fee structure seems to be disconnected from any kind of ROI; after all, much of the state university system is taxpayer-funded anyway.

    I should qualify that harsh paragraph by saying “Present Company Excluded”. When I say “You”, I am referring to faculty in your situation, not “Michael”. In fact, in comparing your description of your role and responsibility within the context of this mandate, my response as an educator is more of sympathy than anything else (although I do envy your pension …).

    As you know, I teach at a tuition-driven, private, research-oriented university. We, too, are exploring online classes, but we do not have a mandate – for the exact reason that “Coffee Time” suggests – there is not enough data on whether or not it works, whether it works better for some material than others, or how a model like this might fit into the overall strategic plan of a university. There are dozens of additional unanswered questions – ones that we are exploring – some of which (like “what kind of financial model is appropriate?”) seem to be foregone conclusions in the state bureaucracy of Florida.

    Our model, at least to begin with, is one of “free market”. As a professor, I have been offered the opportunity to create content for online classes. There is no mandate, but there is plenty of incentive and support for creating classes that will provide an excellent niche education for a specific market that will benefit the student, the institute, and me. The governor is not involved.

    I am free to design an online class or series of online classes on a topic of my choice – either independent of the department or as part of a larger plan. When the course launches, I am paid for my efforts. If I teach the class, I am paid for doing so – which is over and above my regular workload. The design and syllabus of the class is such that it can be taught by others as well, so it can be replicated as many times as necessary based on demand and instructor availability – but as the designer of the course I am offered a commission or royalty based on the number of times the class runs, and based on enrollment. There is a tremendous amount of incentive for me to design a relevant, challenging, popular class that will run over and over again.

    My department will also get a “piece of the pie”. A large chunk of the revenue will go to my department for purchases that are important and necessary, but are difficult to have approved through regular bureaucratic accounting channels. This gives us a lot of autonomy in the direction of our department. We may need new computers or software, or want a VR lab or interactive whiteboards for our classrooms – but rather than have to wait in line behind others before our capital requests are even considered, we can do a lot of this ourselves.

    Even with this revenue sharing model, the overall cost is lower than any of the traditional classroom credits we offer. There is a definite value added to some of the online content, and a definite and obvious “cost saving” mechanism as well. There is a strong connection between what the students get and what they pay for. There is a reasonable expectation that online classes will cost less than on-site classes, and we meet that expectation.

    Of course, the success of this all depends on the quality of instruction we provide – we need students, we need enrollment, and we especially need repeat revenue – so it’s got to be good. It has to be better than good – it has to be excellent, and has to develop a strong reputation among those who have taken the classes – as demonstrated by their own successes upon completion.

    To facilitate this excellence, and to enable the professors to stay focused on their own expertise, the institute has funded the development of a production facility in our library that will offer all the technology and expertise needed to create the online classes. If I produce the content, I have plenty of support in recording, screen-capture, video compression, streaming, LMS, discussion forums, testing, grading, feedback and even live lectures. Our designers have even created shell templates that offer branding for the classes.

    Not only do the online classes represent an entirely separate revenue stream, but much attention has been given to the impact the online classes might have on our traditional classroom based degree programs. We are not ready to replace anything until we are able to evaluate all aspects of this new model, nor do we want to set up a situation where we are competing with ourselves. For the time being, we are offering “certificate” programs through various departments; credits earned through these programs cannot yet replace credits to be earned in on-site classes, but the knowledge and expertise gained can certainly be used to “test out” of beginner and intermediate classes – to allow a student to earn his degree by taking more advanced, research-oriented classes.

    One added benefit to this is the marketing opportunity it gives to the department and the university for our more traditional, on-site degree programs. If the professors in my department offer excellent online classes for a certificate program, there is a likelihood that some of those students might decide to matriculate and seek a degree, and will want to study under the same professors who designed the courses that triggered that desire in the first place.

    But the bottom line is education. Can it work? You bring up a good point when you say that there are some classes that lend themselves nicely to this kind of model, others not so much. For the latter group, there are three options.

    One: change the class delivery so that it does work within the online format. This requires some research, some innovation, some creative thinking.

    Two: develop the technology or innovate using existing technology so that it can accommodate different kinds of material. Same requirements as above.

    Three: don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, and recognize that not everything has to be one way or another. Seems this conclusion ought to come from a careful consideration of the results of the first two, including feedback from both sides of the blackboard.

    The bureaucratic mandate model that you describe does none of these things, which is really a shame. There is no incentive for excellence or followup, there is no reward or consideration for extra work or creative innovation, there is no methodology for measured results, except for the achievement of the 40% – which will benefit administrators and bureaucrats who are responsible for getting it done. Any benefit to students or the quality of the “product” of the university would seem to be coincidental at best.

    I don’t know if our model will work at all, but the approach seems much more reasonable. If it doesn’t work, we have caused no harm to our existing structure, and in a pure sense, we will have contributed to a body of research that will be very useful to others who are considering the same or similar ventures. If it does work, we will have made the same contribution to the research while benefiting a growing population of students and perhaps increasing the enrollment and qualifications of applicants to the degree programs the online sector is designed, in part, to support.

    The model embraced by Governor Scott reminds me of the housing and sub-prime mortgage crisis in this country. Some politician decided that it would be beneficial to be able to crow about results in headlines, and issued a bunch of mandates without regard to how they would be achieved or what the potential outcomes might be, beyond the next election, of course. People all up and down the bureaucratic ladder scrambled to get their name on some successful part of achieving the mandate, and many were handsomely rewarded with bonuses, promotions, or plum appointments for their efforts. We all know how this ended up.

    So again, Michael, you have my sympathy for being in a bad situation. It’s up to you to make it work, but in the end no one really cares but you – and even if you choose to just throw together some class based on a minimum effort, you’ll still get your pension. It won’t be long – time flies – and you can retire and write books.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      As far as the motivation goes, here are some points to consider:
      1. The state has been considering allowing “non-schools” to sell accredited classes online.
      2. For-profit schools have influence in Florida.

      Some years back, when I heard about the first point, I joked about starting MikeCorp to sell my classes to students. But, I suspect that the approach is not intended to benefit small businesses.

      Oh, I don’t have a pension. I’ve got a TIAA-CREF retirement account and an IRA.

      • WTP said, on January 4, 2018 at 1:24 pm

        There are plenty of “non-schools” publishing available material on the web currently. College classes in IT are a cost and time expense that are generally a waste. Not to mention that most college IT info is way behind the faster moving marketplace. All that’s missing is the “credentialing” system in academia that has, thanks to the no-show classes and pass-alongs and grade inflation common at most public universities (can’t speak to the private ones but I’m guessing they’re not far behind), has been diluted to irrelevance. Yet making up for that missing piece are certifications issued via tests administered by Microsoft, Oracle, etc.

        I might also add, waaaaay back in the 1980s at U of F, business school courses were videotaped in the morning and replayed in various classrooms through the day. Made registration/scheduling conflicts, a big problem at the time, virtually non-existent. There was also a video lab available if one was out of town or such and missed an entire day of school. There was also plenty of room available for the live sessions as they were always held in the early morning and even those who signed up for that session often attended another one later in the day instead of the live one, either due to laziness (mostly…college students of course) or having another test to study for earlier in the day…or hangovers. Thus enabling anyone who really wanted to attend the live one an available seat.

      • dh said, on January 4, 2018 at 2:23 pm

        Hmm. I thought you did have a pension. My mistake – too bad for you!

        In my discipline, we are always cognizant of the differences between “training” and “education”. Since our classes rely on high-end, cutting-edge and often “not ready for prime time” software and hardware, a significant amount of time and effort is spent in addressing the learning curve for this kind of technology, but that is not the core of our curriculum by any stretch. We teach things like design, narrative, user experience – and try to put that within the context of what has been done before, what is being done now, and what the future of the various industries might bring. The “training” part of what we do is a necessary evil, and it’s that sort of thing that really lends itself to the online classes. In fact, the university has subscriptions for students to online training companies like Pluralsight and Lynda.com; we encourage and even curate other online resources for our classes as well.

        One area that I didn’t mention is the use of Open Education Resources (OER), which are put on the Internet by places like MIT and Stanford; while there are some faculty around the country who see these as a threat, we generally see them as opportunities – opportunities to broaden the scope of our classrooms, take some pressure off ourselves to address topics where we might have less expertise than others, and to allow us the freedom to explore other areas more deeply with a more robust underpinning. I say this because you brought up the challenge of creating content for the online classes – the OER can be incorporated into online classes relatively easily and curated by the professor; while these can certainly be included in a traditional syllabus, the delivery through a standardized web interface offers additional benefits in terms of tracking, formative assessment + review cues & links, and many other opportunities – but I digress.

        I guess my biggest area of question and concern is the same as it is for so many other issues. I don’t think that “for profit” is a bad thing – it certainly has its benefits in creating incentives and fostering excellence in product development, cost, and benefit to the consumer. Nor is government necessarily bad either, although I’m far more wary of it than I am the free market – at least with the latter I can choose not to participate.

        My take on the Florida mandate is that it’s a government overreach; they seem to be putting their own political agenda ahead of the loftier goals of an institute of higher learning.

        Regardless of the intent, it would seem reasonable for you to start “MikeCorp” if the state allows it. Why not? Even the “accreditation” is only a small part of education, necessary for some things but not others. I have gained tremendous benefit from taking classes at non-schools, either online, at conferences, or at local venues (there is a fairly well-known artist who has a studio very close to my home; I’ve taken classes from him myself – he has a very strong following and his courses, which are now available online as well, are usually full.). In my industry, there are plenty of non-school schools that have everything BUT accreditation. “Animation Mentors”, for example, is a virtual school comprised of working animators from places like Disney, Pixar, Sony, and others – who teach very high-level classes from a professional, production perspective to independent artists, graduates of programs like ours, and to other professionals who want to hone their skills. While not accredited by the state, and with no “degree” to offer, AM and others have a strong enough reputation that a “certificate of completion” earned from them can open a lot of doors in this industry.

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