Prof. Jeff Kolnick (Southwest Minn. State U.): “A Teacher’s Take on Online Learning”

The post below is republished with the permission of Jeff Kolnick (Minnesota 2020 Blog).  An experienced instructor of online education, his comments on MOOCs echo our concerns in California with   State Senator Steinberg’s introduction of  Senate Bill 520 to establish The California Virtual Campus.   Undoubtedly this bill arises from Steinberg’s frustration at the slow pace of change in the public higher ed sector and his own disinterest or inability to create  the kind of progressive tax reform necessary to re-fund public education in the State.  But imposing a superstructure of online courses on unaligned  layers of organizational complexity —110 community colleges, 23 CSU campuses,  and 10 UCs  serving over 3.5 million students  —may create more havoc.  Beyond this, dumping WASC and using ACE as the accrediting agency for these new courses is troubling. Moreover the demand that at least two courses are developed “that support basic skills education courses in English, English as a second language, or mathematics” and the use of MOOCs for this purpose verges on the deeply problematic.  We are entering a cynical  age of “good-enough education” for the hundreds of thousands of children in California who cannot afford to attend a quality liberal arts college.  They will be offered the “good enough” cheap  option, which actually may not be good enough for the higher-skill jobs anticipated in the State.  We need thoughtful, not quick-fix, leadership.  Teri Yamada

A Teacher’s Take on Online Education

By Jeff Kolnick, Hindsight Community Fellow, March 13, 2013 at 7:30 am

As a history teacher at Southwest Minnesota State University, let me weigh in on the debate about online learning. I’ve taught online within the MnSCU system every year since 2004. I am not opposed to online education nor am I afraid of it.

At a recent online panel discussion focused on best practices, there was a general consensus that with proper class size control and good pedagogy, students write more in online classes. This can help improve written communication skills, especially when faculty are vigilant about making developmental comments and providing opportunities for revision. The online approach can widen opportunities for shy students to get involved in class discussion more easily than in face to face classes. It also cuts geographic barriers, which is better than no access at all.

Simply put, the upside depends on well designed and rigorous course with regular faculty involvement. This means frequent appearances in discussion forums and daily postings of one kind or another on top of careful evaluation of written work and time for one-on-one communication via e-mail when requested.

The downsides of online are many. Super high attrition rates are almost universal. Faculty have a hard time getting to know students, which limits  mentorship opportunities and makes writing letter of recomendation difficult. Pressure to increase class size leads to limited rigor and less writing, thus weakening the best part of online education. Online is particularly ill suited to entry level classes and remedial level work. Sadly that is where it is being pushed the hardest by its advocates in government and in the business world.

Recently on these pages, Alex Christensen posted an excellent essay on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), after the University of Minnesota announced plans to offer them. Generally, these classes are free (except for a nominal fee), open to anyone, regardless of status at the school, and don’t actually count toward graduation. However, the eventual aim is to use MOOCs at schools nationally to bring low-cost higher education to the masses while generating a profit for the businesses that deliver the courses. Some Minnesota policymakers want to lead this charge.

So here’s one concern: How would this impact those at community colleges and less selective universities when online teachers suggest that small online classes and frequent faculty contact is essential for student success? Duke University released a thorough study examining one of its MOOCs. Among the finds are the following:

COSTS—huge investment of time (600 total hours, 420 by the faculty member).
SUCCESS—over 11,000 enrolled and only 313 successfully completed the course.
WHO—two thirds of the students who enrolled had a BA or advanced degree.

Here are some questions Minnesota should ask before fully embarking on this major investment of time and money:

Will MOOCs create a two tiered system of education, with wealthy people still sending their children to elite colleges and MOOCs for everyone else?
What is higher education’s ultimate goal?
What is the difference between transferring information and getting an education?

What is the success rate of students by different demographic groups for MOOCs?
What are the demonstrated student learning outcomes for MOOCs?
What is the return on investment for Minnesota or a given university on a “business model” with limited revenue flow?

As we move forward with online education, it would be wise for policy makers to take advantage of the hundreds of Minnesota faculty who have been doing it successfully for many years: What have they learned?  What are the attrition rates, the success of existing online courses at achieving learning outcomes, and the success of online education among different demographic groups?

Like any pedagogical tool, online education can be used effectively or ineffectively. Before we jump into the brave new world of MOOCs, we should study and understand them. In the meantime, let’s reinvest in what we know works, affordable public higher education.

One Comment on “Prof. Jeff Kolnick (Southwest Minn. State U.): “A Teacher’s Take on Online Learning””

  1. Larry Press says:

    I don’t see MOOCs as pure “McMoocs” or as silver bullets that will reduce the number of universities in the world to ten, but I do think they will be effective for some students, with some goals in some subjects. I think they are also driving innovation in technology, pedagogy and certification.

    I wrote a blog post on SB 520, the open textbook initiative and the MOOC trial at San Jose State. I also quoted from the supplemental notes to President Obama’s State of the Union speech — he and Governor Brown seem to be on the same page. You can see that at:

    The Kolnick article was also posted on the CSUDH faculty mailing list and I put in my two cents as follows:

    On 3/14/2013 1:03 PM, David Bradfield wrote:
    > It is well worth the read.


    Thanks for posting this.

    As I read the article, he is talking about two kinds of online education
    — small, traditional classes like we are running at CSUDH and massive,
    open, online classes or MOOCS. (MOOC is a truly cringeful acronym when

    The first are relatively small, which allows regular faculty
    involvement. As he says, these can be good if done well, but that is
    not always the case. A recent Columbia University study found
    lackluster performance in a large sample of traditional online courses

    The results do not have to be poor, but they can be. I suspect that a
    common source of difficulty may be trying to use the same material and
    approach online as one used in a face-face class — old wine in a new
    bottle. (That pattern is repeated for every new medium).

    But, most of the article concerns MOOCs — very large classes, which
    preclude regular, frequent interaction with the professor.

    Here the article seems a bit one sided to me. He cites the Duke
    Bioelectricty course, but focuses on the cost and number of students who
    received certificates, but the report is 21 pages long and generally
    positive. See for yourself at:

    I would also suggest listening to this 14 minute interview of the
    professor, Roger Barr, conducted by Steven Cherry of the IEEE, a major
    professional society:

    Professor Barr does not consider the course a failure.

    I am not a MOOC fanboy, but I think that for some subjects and some
    students and some goals, they may turn out to be important. If nothing
    else, they are generating (and assessing) innovation in pedagogy . technology and certification — pushing us to find some new wine for our new bottle, the

    I could go on like this for a long time. I’ve written several blog
    posts on MOOCs ( and am
    trying to develop some “new wine” of my own, but there is tons more to
    say good and bad and the future is far from certain.


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