“It’s not what it seems: Online in a social world” (Don Barrett)

  Guest blogger imagesDon Barrett, Ph.D., is recently retired from the faculty at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) where he taught health sociology; he was also CSUSM chapter president of the California Faculty Association (CFA).  Though retired from the CSU, he continues his advocacy on social class, labor, and LGBT issues through CFA, the Pacific Sociological Association, and other venues.  He may be reached at dbarrett@csusm.edu

“It’s not what it seems: Online in a social world”

Having taught a mixture of partial and completely  online Sociology courses at CSU San Marcos since 2000, my experiences have been similar to those described by Prof.  Jeff Kolnick (see Restructuring Public Hi Ed of 3/15/2013).  Like Kolnick, I found online education to be very effective in general, and to have special advantages in two areas:  1) at providing strong interaction with a wider range of students than one gets in the classroom and, 2) at allowing students the flexibility to work their studying around the increased work and family demands they are encountering.  Also like he noted, experience of many faculty at CSUSM was that effective online education usually took more time than a typical classroom taught course, and did not work well with large classes.

Though I found online education to be effective and to generate good interactions with students, I have strong concerns about the push for online education as a solution to budget problems.  Why?  Because administrators and policy makers are confusing online with automated, and because a key socialization characteristic of education is being overlooked in the push for efficiency.

Online is not automated:  The cost arguments used to promote online are far too often based on an assumption of reducing personnel costs by setting up courses that either run themselves or run with most of the work done by lower-paid technicians.  MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be particularly setup along these lines.  From conversations with colleagues who teach online, the main efficiency in teaching online is that students can schedule classes to fit in with their schedules and thus be more productive in the class, there is no efficiency for the faculty who  teach them.

Though many colleagues and I don’t find online to be that efficient, we are likely to be biased.  In fact, two clear situations come up where a more automated online might work, though the value of such online remains questionable.  One situation where online would work is where the course focuses on a relatively closed set of skills and doesn’t contain the critical reflection that one normally expects as part of a college education.  The second situation where limited faculty engagement might also be successful is for work with that limited set of students who already have strong knowledge of the subject and in fact could have tested out of the course rather than taking it.  Neither of those situations seem to provide strong arguments for online college-level education.

Socialization:  The just-noted focus on automating content highlights a key problem that is not being addressed in the push for online education (regardless of the level of automation.)  In the push for online, we seem to be forgetting about the role of a college education in building interaction skills and in encouraging the sorts of cross-pollination that happens when people from different backgrounds and perspectives casually interact.  While colleges are focusing on more and more efficiency, leaders in the post-industrial economy are realizing the high value in the seemingly wasted time chit-chatting while waiting in line for a double-latte.  As indicated in the discussions around Marissa Mayer’s decision to end employees ability to work from home at Yahoo, actual face-time is a key component of the creativity needed in the contemporary workplace.  For young adults not yet in the workplace, a physical college with classrooms, snack bars, sidewalks, and faculty offices is an ideal location to hone their abilities to interact with, and benefit from, the perspectives of  others from different backgrounds and life experiences.

Given the value of college as a socialization agent, how does online education fit in?  In the balance of the demands on modern students, I would argue that online education can play a role, but that there also needs to be very conscientious planning to make sure students have a significant proportion of actual face-time with diverse sets of other students and faculty.   To insure a good mix of experiences with other students, care needs to be taken to make sure that completely online courses are not clustered into specific fields of study or at specific levels (e.g., all prep courses), and to require that an identifiable and not insignificant (e.g., 50%?) portion of a student’s involve face-to-face interaction.  Doing this would require a high level of planning, and support from administration for that planning, regarding the place of online education in degree requirements.

….

Going back to the beginning, from my own experience, online education can work and be quite effective.  But, if we move from a narrow focus of education within a course and instead look at the broader implications of being in an educational environment, then we see that very careful consideration should be given regarding the role of online coursework within the totality of the student experience.

To back up this need for comprehensive planning, one final observation.  Circumstantial evidence from my own online teaching is that many of the students who did well in the courses talked about informal face-time that they had with other students through other shared classroom courses.  If this observation is common in online courses, then it turns out that online education works best when it is not as solo as one usually assumes.  When it is, in fact, not really 100% online but instead involving informally created study groups.



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