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The Online Experience
by Jim Lengel, Hunter College of Education, 11/19/09

Overheard in the hallways of academe:

Next week's class will take place online. You'll find all the materials you need posted on Blackboard. The objective for next week is to understand the leading psychological theories of children's moral development, and be able to apply them to what goes on in your classroom. First, you'll read a concise introduction to the three main theories, then a short classroom-based research study based on one of the theories recently published in Child Development. You'll take a short quiz to ensure you've understood what you've read, then you'll enjoy my ten-minute illustrated podcast that relates these theories and research to daily life in the classroom. After that you'll watch video clips of moral discussions in two classrooms, and be asked to identify which students show which stages of development. Finally, you'll record a short moral discussion that you conducted in your own classroom, analyze your own students' stages of moral reasoning, and send me the results.

No class meeting next week. Since the Yankees are playing the Mets in the World Series on Wednesday, all the subways will be crowded and it will take you forever to get here. So instead you'll do some work online. Read the next chapter in the textbook, then post your comments to the discussion board on Blackboard. If you have any questions, send them to me on email. Write a one-page summary of the chapter and bring it to class two weeks from now.

The magic of technology enabled us to record last semester every lecture in this course. The lectures are all posted online, with synchronized PowerPoint slides and lots of graphics. Go to the Blackboard site and you'll see all 14 of them. We also recorded a different section meeting each week, and these too are all online in living color. So next week go and watch those videos, then you'll find a 50-question multiple choice test on Blackboard that will test your knowledge of the subject matter. This will substitute for our regular class meeting next week.

Next week your goal is to learn about the different economic systems in British overseas colonies in the second half of the 18th century, and to understand how they contributed to varying forms of political organization. Each group of three students has been assigned one colony; what you need to do is to complete the first draft of your illustrated analysis, and send it to me by Friday. I expect that your group will meet together face-to-face at least once during the week, and have another meeting as an online chat. Your final report must include references to at least four of the readings that I have posted on Blackboard; it must also include information from at least two original sources that you locate on your own. Your illustrations should include at least two contemporary images such as paintings, etchings, artifacts, or maps. I'll assess your work based on the rubric posted on Blackboard that includes concepts from both political science and economics.

All of these examples include online learning. How would you rank these four in terms of quality? Why?

As more and more teachers move to include online learning in their courses, we need to look closely at what works and what doesn't, what's acceptable and what's not, what's a best practice and what is to be avoided. The University of Phoenix, a recent and fast growing institution of higher education, has been called on the carpet recently for shoddy practices in online education, for lowering academic standards for the sake of convenience. Faculties all over the world are asked to determine the quality of online courses compared with traditional classroom-based instruction. This article looks at some criteria that might help distinguish the gold from the dross.


We have for centuries described our courses in terms of credits and time: a three-credit course meets three hours a week for fifteen weeks. So 45 hours of class time is worth three credits; and we expect that class time is complemented by the student with independent reading and writing and lab time. To follow this tradition, we would analyze online learning in terms of how many hours students devote to it: a three-credit online course should consume perhaps 75 hours of a student's time (45 class hours + 30 hours for homework). As we look at an online course, we can estimate how much time it would take a student to complete each assignment, and use that to judge its quality. So we'd expect a three-credit online course to include 75 assignments, each taking an hour to complete. And for typical online weekly session, we might expect five hours of work by the student. We can even set up our learning management system to track how long each student spends with each online assignment, if we want to be sticklers about it.


But time may not be the best measure. What we want to see is student work: the amount of work they accomplish in an online course should equal or exceed what they do in a classroom-based course. Following this approach, we would look for students to absorb the material presented in the weekly lecture, read the 50 or so pages of text normally assigned in that week, plus complete the assigned lab work. Some will get this work done in three hours; for others it might take six. Of course, they need to turn the work in each week so we know they've done it. So we measure the quality of an online course by how much work is involved on the student's part, and make sure it's equivalent to the work required in classroom-based courses.


But it's not what they do that matters, it's what they learn. So perhaps the best way to evaluate an online course is to point the students to all the materials they need to cover, and then give them a test or paper to write that shows whether or not they learned it. With this approach, we need not concern ourselves with the means of education, only the ends. We would make sure that the amount of learning that occurs in the online course meets or exceeds what's learned in the face-to-face version. So we don't concern ourselves much with the hours or the activity, but concentrate on the assessment. As long as they pass the test, they get credit, whether it's online or off. We need only look at the quality of the assessment, and its evaluation rubric, to judge the online course.

All of these approaches have merit; most of us combine all three as we examine the new digital offerings that come across our display screens. All share the weakness of comparison with a suspect standard: are we sure that our current classroom-based practices represent the most effective forms of learning? Perhaps it would be better to go back and take Pedagogy 101, and apply an absolute standard of quality education. If we did, what would be its components?

When I look at an online course or session, I look for four things: objectives, exploration, wrestling, and production. If any of these are missing, or weak, the course does not pass muster.


You'd be surprised at what's offered up as objectives on the syllabi of faculty members I work with in online education:

  • To talk about the influence of deconstructionism on the work of street artists in the Paris Commune of 1968.
  • To cover the material in chapters 15-18 of the text, Modern Astrophysics.
  • To deal with the four main theories of child development as they apply to language learning disabilities.

And you'd be surprised at how many online courses and sessions make no mention at all of what is to be learned: they state neither goals nor objectives nor expectations. They simply post a collection of readings or activities. To be acceptable, an online course needs, as any course, a set of objectives, stated in terms of what the student is expected to learn. Here are some samples:

  • Analyze e-commerce sites according to classic business principles and new concepts of e-commerce.
  • Design and program a prototype e-commerce site that follows solid business principles and digital design concepts.
  • In this section of the course, you will learn to:
    *  define language and describe its rule systems
    *  discuss the biological and environmental aspects of language
    *  evaluate how language and cognition are linked
    *  describe how language develops in children
    *  summarize the features of African American English

This second set of objectives is more useful because it explains what the student will be able to do when they finish the online session. And these kinds of objectives make the form of assessment of student learning self-evident, the importance of which we will soon see.


Unless the student thinks some new thoughts in the course of his or her online experience, then there's no education. So every online session or course must cause the student to explore new materials, confront new ideas, develop new concepts, or practice new skills. A summary of the familiar, or a re-hash of the obvious, no matter how slickly it's presented, does not suffice. And the more that this exploration involves different forms of communication: reading, writing, images, video, case study, simulation, and so forth, the more likely it is to provoke thinking. An online session or course that lets students stay in their own intellectual country, and does not require foreign exploration, doesn't make the grade.


Without dissonance, the resolution does not satisfy. The new ideas that students explore in the online course must be carefully crafted to provoke questions in the student's mind, engender cognitive conflict, or afflict the comfortable prejudice. The student must wrestle with the new ideas or new skills in order to understand them. So we should look for online assignments that call for comparison, contrast, taking the wrong side of an issue, practicing a technique that you've never tried before. An online session that simply expects students to remember and repeat, or skim and summarize, would not meet this criterion.


In many of the online courses that I have seen, the student is asked to produce nothing; he or she needs simply to read, watch, listen, and perhaps discuss. But unless a student produces something that proves that he or she has mastered the objectives, how will we know it worked? So for each objective, there must be a production, a piece of work that the student creates that provides evidence of learning. It can be as simple as a multiple-choice test, as familiar as a two-page paper, or as complex as a group podcast. To qualify for approval, an online course or session must call for an assessment of its objectives, produced by each student.

Go back and look at the four examples printed at the beginning of this article, and apply the seven-part rubric. Which of them pass the test?









Example 1








Example 2








Example 3








Example 4










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