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The Two Big Problems With Online College Courses 215

Hugh Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that while online college classes are already common, on the whole, the record is not encouraging because there are two big problems with online teaching. First, student attrition rates — around 90 percent for some huge online courses — appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. Second, courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed. Research has shown that community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return. Worse still, low-performing students who may be just barely hanging on in traditional classes tend to fall even further behind in online courses. 'Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely,' says the Times. 'Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.' Interestingly, research found that students in hybrid classes — those that blended online instruction with a face-to-face component — performed as well academically as those in traditional classes. But hybrid courses are rare, and teaching professors how to manage them is costly and time-consuming. 'The online revolution offers intriguing opportunities for broadening access to education. But, so far, the evidence shows that poorly designed courses can seriously shortchange the most vulnerable students.'"
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The Two Big Problems With Online College Courses

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  • fix the students (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vswee ( 2040690 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @07:34PM (#42960641) Journal
    they should teach students in secondary school to be more "highly motivated". would make the college experience much more rewarding.
  • This just in... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Grashnak ( 1003791 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @08:04PM (#42960831)

    Taking online courses for credit requires self-discipline that not everyone has. Film at 11.

  • by Mordok-DestroyerOfWo ( 1000167 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @08:18PM (#42960993)
    "Highly regarded"? I've seen managers throw out any resume that had University of Phoenix or any other online university. Let's face it, online degrees are a high-priced joke.
  • It's the teaching (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @08:41PM (#42961179) Homepage Journal

    I've been taking online courses for two years(*), and my conclusion is: it's not the subject, it's the presentation.

    I've come to the realization that college professors - even highly esteemed professors from highly esteemed universities - don't know much about the actual technique of teaching, nor of presentation.

    Every course I've seen so far goes against the grain of how we learn, or has features which repel attention. Droning talk with hypnotic rhythm, no vocal variety, poor spacing and timing, and filled with pauses and disfluencies which put the student to sleep (Daphne Koller, Stanford []). Tedious derivations with no initial apparent purpose and no apparent endpoint which go on and on, suddenly ending with simple result (Anant Agarwal, MIT []). Pointless exercise and homework with no apparent relevance to the subject (Richard Buckland, UNSW []). The list is endless.

    People who give lectures for a living - public speakers, professional salesmen, life coaches, and so on - have this figured out. They *have* to, because their livelihood depends on it. Their presentation has to capture interest, have relevance, have value to the listener, and be easily understood.

    College professors sing to a captive audience with no feedback. If students don't do well, it's because of the course content; or it's because the students are not "Stanford level" or whatever. Stanford is considered tough, but no one ever wonders whether it's because the quality of teaching is low. Colleges aren't rated highly when they can teach anyone, they are rated highly when they can only teach the top students.

    The typical online course just videotapes a lecture and throws it up on the net with some homework and grading software. There is no rehearsal, no redoing of bloopers or flubs, nothing one would get in a professionally-made video. The homework is generally "one question per concept" and is often "get it right the first time". No room for experimentation, multiple practice, or exploration. No feedback or watching the professor run through an example.

    They wonder why the attrition rate is so low, it's obvious.

    It's because their methods are just bloody awful.

    (Note: I've scored high 90's in each course so far. The material isn't that tough, if you've ever had a good professor you know how understanding is easy when well presented. Blaming the content or the student is a dodge - very little is difficult to understand if it is taught well.)

  • Apples and Oranges (Score:4, Insightful)

    by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @09:48PM (#42961683)
    When I sign up for a physical bricks and mortar course I will typically be paying for it, consider which course I want very carefully, and then set time aside in my week. But when I sign up for say a Coursera (Love them) course I will click enroll willy-nilly. I am perfectly happy to dip my toe in the water and see if the course is for me or if the person doing the course has any idea what they are doing. For example, I recently took a Cryptography course. The professor knew how to run the tutorials. The workload was about right and the quiz / exam questions were on material somewhat covered by the course. My daughter signed up for a Coursera Pre-calculus math course and withrew after attempting the first week. The course was a mess of dog crap. They had nearly zero idea how to properly use the coursera system and the tutorials were odd. Then worst of all when she went to enter the answers it was rejecting answers that were simple and correct.

    At the present time the simple problem is one of editorial and production. I would say that few of the people creating these moocs have any real experience; nor do they seem to be getting much direction. If you compare the videos to say those in the great courses there is no comparison. Also there are the fundamentals such as workload; it is too easy to have an assignment where you ask the students to do things that will require way too much work. Or like a recent Game Theory course I have been taking does: ask questions on material they didn't really cover.

    But time should take care of this. If the people running the courses are getting good feedback from the questions then they will slowly iterate their courses into something great.

    What I do agree on is that there is going to be a sea change in those who are able to thrive in modern education. In the past, as an employer you can look at a collage grad and know that they showed up every day and did their time. But with online courses you will basically know that the student has done the work (ignore cheating for the moment) but did they binge and do the course in a caffeine fueled weekend in the last minute? Did they do it slowly or are they a god and pounded out a whole degree in a summer? This isn't necessarily better or worse but it will be different.

    But there are two areas where it will get far better and far worse. First the better will be that an amazing opportunity will now be available for people to better themselves who would never have been able to. This applies to both people in distant countries with few educational opportunities and people who are trapped in situations here in the western world such as dropping out of school to provide for a family. Online education will be like a night school GED on mega steroids. The area where it will be far worse will be that you can now get an education without any of the hidden benefits such as social interaction, social interaction, and meeting amazing people socially. Meeting people with similar interests is one of the great things about a physical school as beyond the satisfaction it provides it also provides future networking, and present development of ideas and businesses. It is possible to interact with people in a forum but something is usually missing.

    I am not sure that it is the greatest loss if undisciplined and unfocused people end up dropping out. I have met too many programmers who did have that piece of paper but were unable to contribute squato.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @10:24PM (#42961937)

    I'm a professor at a Texas law school. Taking certain classes can be a bitter pill for many to swallow despite interest in the material or field of law more generally, educator or method of teaching the material, or any other factor.

    In response to the article, though. My school has an 80% class attendance requirement for students. Some students miss every class they can, and some professors (including myself) allow others to slide by with fewer than 80% for one reason or another. I have noticed that generally higher student attendance correlates with higher student grade, but in many cases requiring high attendance numbers can be burdensome to students and the correlation can go the opposite direction.

    The problem, and this may hold for students in online classes also, is that many students are attempting to juggle competing yet equally-compelling responsibilities. Many of my students are >35 and have families with young children and/or are working in addition to taking classes. If they can demonstrate fulfillment of my criteria in class, I don't care how often they are there.

    But for the younger students, who often aren't as mature and lack the life experience to deal with some of the pressures of a stressful environment like law school, and who aren't as driven or motivated to succeed as the older students, not attending means poor grades. These students rarely learn outside class, so class is where you must focus the efforts.

    On the other hand, I have advocated for teaching a "life learning"-type course. I would love to teach metacognitive and metamemory strategies, encourage volunteerism and community activism, and similar life lesson-type materials--for credit! This may solve some of the maturity issues (because most people need time to develop these skills and passions).

  • by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @11:11PM (#42962255)

    Historically people like you would be allowed to flunk out of college so that the seats would be available for people who valued education.

    The sort of specialization that we've seen in recent decades is a really big problem. Few problems of any size in the world are truly solvable with only one area of specialty. Economics, pollution, humanitarian crises, health care and such require that one be capable of working across specialties with people who have studied other things.

    Those subjects you're complaining about are what makes it possible for people to do that. What's more, very few people these days will spend an entire career in one field and the more subjects you've been exposed to the more likely that you'll be able to adapt.

    But, lastly and possibly most importantly, studying and thinking in different ways is good for your brain.

  • by DigiShaman ( 671371 ) on Thursday February 21, 2013 @01:43AM (#42963227) Homepage

    Not anymore. Now we have degree inflation where it takes a BA just to get a 10/hour job. It's a "requirement" AKA HR Dept resume filter. College is now the HS diploma. Essentially, you must now purchase a student loan billed at historic all-time highs just to get a job that will hardly be enough to pay it off. And you can't default on student loans.

    Two words. Indentured servitude!

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday February 21, 2013 @03:34AM (#42963975) Journal
    College is (partly) about preparing for the real world. In the real world, no one is around to entertain you while you learn.

    Today at work, I read a man page, and then had to read through some source code. Neither one was entertaining, there was no one there holding my hand. It was boring, dry and incredibly matter-of-fact. That's how the real world is, for a lot of problems you aren't even lucky enough to have the man page.

    Professors don't have education degrees because their job isn't to educate. Their job is to be founts of wisdom and knowledge, from which students can learn and grow, or the students can flunk out if they don't want to work. That prepares you for the real world.

    Of course, some schools are party schools.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2013 @08:26AM (#42965445)

    As far as the breadth requirements go, I can see two things:

    Awareness of situations, issues, and other factors outside of your own speciality along with the ability to frame real world problems and decisions using information "from left field" (you don't want to make some engineering decisions without a cursory knowledge of economics, right?)

    and... knowing what you don't know. Often I find those old survey classes to be valuable simply because they've provided me the tip of a wedge to make an informed bit of research when needed into a given area, as opposed to going in cold.

"More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined." -- Fred Brooks, Jr., _The Mythical Man Month_