Friday, October 30, 2009

Online Learning: pay it forward

Things are a mess in higher education now and we need new ideas to help us move forward. In my last blog post, I reflected on the loss of California's proud history of higher education which includes magical stories of free community college degrees that opened gateways and fulfilled dreams of socially disadvantaged individuals who, otherwise, would likely have never completed a college education. I received a few comments from that post and several heartfelt emails from individuals who had earned degrees through this "free college" system. The emails were filled with tremendous heartbreak over the recent budget cuts to California's higher education system and, more specifically, how those cuts are impacting students' access to learning.

Of course, we all realize something has to change. First, public education in California, and across our nation, needs more funding in order to ensure our students are provided with access to affordable college education. However, we need more than money. We need new approaches to education; new ways of thinking about connecting our students to learning experiences.

This week was the 15th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning. Two years ago, I was awarded with the Sloan-C Excellence Award in Online Teaching, which will remain a highlight of my career forever. Sloan-C has been a leader in the field of advocating for quality online learning since before most educators had even considered the notion of "distance learning." This was the first year since receiving my award that I did not attend the conference. Despite being invited to participate in a prestigious panel discussion titled "Ask The Experts," I was not granted funding to travel to Orlando due to the California budget cuts. Therefore, I was not in attendance this year. That was tough for me, as I feel being part of the international dialogue about online learning is an important part of growth as an educator and an advocate for faculty who teach online.

While I wasn't there in person, I did read an article today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that featured some thoughts about the conference. Despite the drastic travel restrictions, conference attendance increased from 1,190 to 1,435 people (in person). Frank Mayadas, long time Sloan Program Director, addressed the crowd with a call to action -- a call to meet the demand to retrain Americans who have been laid off and are now in a state of transition seeking new skills for a career change. Online learning opens new avenues of opportunities to students who may be unable to attend a physical class due to other circumstances (which could include a host of topics from child care challenges, work schedules, psychological disorders, physical disabilities, etc.). Online learning is in demand. We know that. It's not a shock. Last year's Sloan-C report, Staying the Course, revealed that 3.94 students in higher ed were enrolled in at least one online class in 2007. That's about one in four students. I'm waiting for a new report to see the new numbers but I'd anticipate these numbers will continue to rise.

What's buried in these numbers is the fact that more than 50% of these online students are enrolled at community colleges. I can attest, from my informal research of observing and listening and conversing the online conferences I've attended across the nation in the past few years, that the large majority of those who attend professional development conferences focused on online learning come from four year universities. Also, having been employed as a full-time faculty member at a California community college for seven years, I can all share that I do not ever recall any community college in California that I came into contact with that had an instructional design team on staff or even a single instructional designer -- thoughts anybody? I'd love to hear from some of you about this topic.

If you are employed at a community college or a university, do you have an instructional design TEAM to support faculty with developing their online courses? What about multimedia support specialists, accessibility specialists, graphic designers, and learning management system staff? What's the faculty support structure like at your community college or university? Let's compare.

Developing online classes is a lot of work. This is not a myth. 85% of faculty with online course development experience agreed that it takes "somewhat more" or "a lot more" effort to develop an online course. The recent APLU survey provides an indepth look at faculty attitudes and opinions about online learning. Most important is their blatant disappointment in their campus support structure (including support for course development, delivery, students, and more). And we need our instructors to maintain a high level of teaching presence in a class for online learning to be high quality. This is where I get concerned.

We have an opportunity right now to put our heads together and support faculty, foster innovation and cultivate communities of course development and shared online content resources that result in online classes with high-touch teaching presence, rather than dull, dry, disconnected content deployed to students through a computer screen -- that's not a quality online course.

Back to Sloan...Frank Mayadas, Program Director for Sloan, has stressed the need for offering more online classes to fulfill the needs of training our workforce. Excellent point. He has also stepped up and encouraged the Obama administration to fund free online courses for community colleges. Perhaps, this is an opportunity to move us back closer to the 1960s free community college education in the California golden state.

This is sounding intriguing, isn't it!?

But the excellence of this plan hinges on whether or not our faculty, the subject matter experts and the human souls that foster and inspire learning, are a core element of the online learning experience. And whether or not instructors are teaching courses that are designed to actively engage students in creative, active learning environments with teacher mentoring and facilitation. It is not acceptable to think of "teaching presence" as a "bottle neck" towards achieving our goal of delivering access to online learning to our student population. Instead, we need to focus on new methods of organizing and funding support for our faculty as an integral element of online programs, rather than a secondary or tertiary afterthought that faculty must fight for.

Frank Mayadas said, "If we’re going to have instructor-led courses, you better get your faculty very enthusiastic, beating on the doors, saying, ‘Give me help. I want to go online.’ And I don’t think we’ve done that." I fully agree. It's time our faculty become empowered to be advocates for the support needed to deliver a quality online learning experience to their students.

And, finally, I also believe it's time higher education begins to foster the value of innovation. How will faculty be encouraged and motivated to try something new, something different -- to take a risk -- when academia is so focused on success? Failure is part of growth and success in a culture of innovation. And if we're modeling innovation and risk taking in our teaching methods but trying new activities and pedagogies, then we're cultivating strong, creative thinkers for the 21st century.

Online learning is our golden opportunity but it's up to all of us to advocate for quality online learning so we pay it forward, rather than open access to dead, irrelevant learning experiences. I hope we play this one right.
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