Saturday, November 06, 2010

Online classes -- hybrids? Large lectures? A growing elite education gap?

An article in today's New York Times looks at online university classes. The article presents a number of anecdotes and examples -- some supporting and some criticizing online undergraduate teaching.

Students like the convenience of online classes and universities hope they will save money (though not all do). On the other hand, some students and parents want contact with faculty in relatively small classes. The Times gave the example of Ilan Shrira, who teaches developmental psychology to 300 students. He said he chose his field because of the passion of a professor who taught him as an undergraduate, but he thought it unlikely that anyone could be so inspired by an online course.

Good or bad, online classes are taking off. The Sloan Survey of Online Learning reported that 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier. More than one in four higher education students took at least one course online.

The article and report reminded me of the tension between classes in large lecture halls with teaching assistants and those in classrooms with a professor. Many online classes are replacing large lectures, and we need to differentiate between that and replacing small classes.

I was taken by professor Shrira's comment. I believe that in my small classes I connect with and make a difference to one or two students a semester. Since students take many classes, the odds of one or two such connections during their time in school are good. I would hate to see that dimension of education eliminated, so:

Perhaps we should be focusing our online efforts on the lecture hall, not the classroom.

Another finding from the Sloan Survey caught my eye. Jeff Seaman, co-director of the survey, said that a large majority, about three million of the 4.7 million online students, were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses, many in community colleges. That indicates that we are not doing as much "distant education" as we might think -- most of our online students are local, which leads me to wonder:

Should we be leaning more toward hybrid than pure online classes?

Finally, the Sloan survey showed that students at large, public universities are more likely to take online classes than those at small, private (expensive) universities. With steadily growing income inequality in the United States, the move to online classes may widen the gap between mass and elite education.