Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Shifting Landscape: Enrollments and Quality Learning in Higher Ed

This post is in response to a comment left on my last post, "Online Learning: Pay it Forward" by Barry. Barry, I found your comment intriguing in many ways and it touched on a lot of ideas that have been on my mind lately about higher ed: competition in higher ed enrollments, the need for quality learning across the board in higher ed, the new standards for "face to face learning" that I am sensing from our YouTube generation of students.

In Barry's comment he stresses a concern that higher ed institutions are at risk of losing enrollments to any well funded institution who can craft staff that includes "the best" online educators which, I assume, means subject matter experts with a mastery in online pedagogy, supported with a team of creative individuals to assist with cultivating dynamic, engaging learning experiences anchored by solid learning objectives (the core of an effective online learning experience). Well, Barry -- you're spot on. And it's happening. Nancy Martinis recently shared this article, College for $99 a Month, from Washington Monthly with me. It was alarming to me, so much that I find it rather difficul to summarize in this blog post. It describes your scenario (and then some) but the model that is being sold to students, and ravenously devoured might I add, is void of the passionate online professor. Think back to your undergraduate college experience. I bet every one of you can think of at least one passionate professor -- in some discipline, even if it wasn't your major -- that inspired you, motivated you to see the world differently. That's what our students risk losing with this new model, in my opinion.

Students are leaving traditional colleges and universities in hoards as they're being confronted with closed doors due to budget cuts, as well as outdated, inconvenient modes of instruction that don't meet their needs. Our students are only trying to get the degree they need so they can achieve their professional or personal goals. It's our job to ensure the degrees they get result in quality learning.

Before the shift from online non-profit universities to online profit universities/corporations began, we saw a significant decrease in face-to-face enrollments across the nation within institutions. If your college/university has a significant online program, 5-7 year date will likely demonstrate a decrease in face-to-face enrollment and a simultaneous increase in online enrollment -- check it out yourself. warned that you'll have to be quite scrupulous as you analyze that data because often colleges and universities seem to embed online data with their face-to-face enrollment data, clouding the fact that their face-to-face enrollments have tanked and their online enrollments have soared.

So, let's focus on this interesting shift for a moment. Why are students leaving face-to-face classes for online classes -- either within their own institution or elsewhere? The article above poses many reasons but there is one that isn't addressed that I'd like to work through a little.

I truly believe that there are many young students today who prefer to learn in face-to-face environments but they find their classroom experiences passive and painfully irrelevant. It seems that the "YouTube Generation" may be establishing different standards for their "face-to-face" time than previous generations. And, when you think about the type of content they access through streaming media, it makes sense.

Why, for example, is a twenty year old college student going to be compelled and motivated to show up, in-person, for an 80-minute session of sitting passively, lost in a group of forty other students, listening to a professor talk about a topic? THAT is content that should streamed for students. Take those lectures and put them online. Have students access them before coming into the classroom. Reactivate the classroom experience for our students, make it engaging, make it dynamic, make it relevant and meaningful. Give them a reason to be there other than "because I said you need to be here." If you haven't watched Jose Bowen's 4-minute "Teach Naked" video yet -- watch it. And don't miss the last minute, as it is very relevant to this discussion.

Bowen's Teach Naked approach, which stresses the importance of taking the technology out of the classroom, is similar to the course design strategy I employed in my Teaching Without Walls experiment that I shared with the Educause Learning Initiative in September. You are welcome to listen to the 20-minute interview I had with a few of my students the last week of the semester. Or download the PowerPoint here to review the student survey results. We need to think carefully about design active learning experiences in the classroom and online so our students view all levels of American higher education as relevant and important.

For those of you interested in following the dialogue about "quality learning" in higher ed, I encourage a thorough reading of Jamie P. Merisotis' recent presentation at Claremont University titled "It's the Learning Stupid," in which he eloquently identifies higher ed's lack of delivering quality educational experiences for students centered around assessing clear learning outcomes. You may be interested in knowing that Merisotis also just delivered a keynote presentation in San Francisco to community college trustees, as well.

Our discussion of innovation in learning needs to stay anchored in quality learning. That is essential and, to me, I believe public higher education has an extreme opportunity to achieve leaps and bounds now over corporate online learning "machines" that are turning out online classes devoid of passion and teaching presence. Students come to college to learn from passionate educators -- that's no different in an online class.

But this will never happen if colleges view their license renewal of an LMS as their only necessary commitment to supporting an online learning program. An LMS does nothing to ensure quality learning and it does nothing to foster innovation. (Barry, this was another great point of your comment.)

An LMS (Blackboard, Moodle, Desire 2 Learn, etc.) is merely a shell for organizing, structuring and managing course content and communicating confidential grade information to students. I realize there are slight innovations shifting in some LMSs but an institution can't merely pay loads of money for faculty to have access to an LMS and consider a program built. Faculty need pedagogy training and much more beyond that.

When I teach online I consider Blackboard the "train station" for my students. They come into it each week to get their itinerary for their learning "journey" and then they go out to engage in web-based, collaborative web 2.0 activities (VoiceThread, Ning, WetPaint) and more customizable content (iTunes U) to learn. The LMS is only one tool in a very, very rich toolkit needed to teach successfully online. That big price tag can't be viewed as, "ok, that's all we need to spend on educational technology for the year." If it is, you'll never foster innovation.

In fact, I still get emails from previous students who write to me about their "flat" learning experiences "back inside" Blackboard using the discussion boards. It seems that once students are pulled into collaborative, peer-based, visual learning activities, it's tough to go back to text-based threaded discussions and be engaged.

Thanks for your comment. We're in for an interesting ride. The landscape is shifting all around us. It truly is an opportunity to make great changes.



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