• 21Jul

    I mentioned the other day on Google+ that I’d signed up for a class on gamification at Coursera.  I had two reasons: first and foremost, I include a section on gamification in my social media class, and it’s very popular. (It’s also one of my favorite topics to cover–badges and leader boards, what’s not to like, right?) I welcome the opportunity to take a six-week course focusing on the subject, taught by an expert, for free. The more I know and understand about the subject, the better I’ll be able to serve my students.

    Also, I’m curious about this burgeoning world of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, a rather unfortunate acronym). One of my tasks this fall is to rework the social media class for delivery as an online class, and even though the format is quite different (not to mention the smaller class size–I hope!), I want to see what the experience is like nowadays. I’m hoping to learn a few pedagogical tricks that will help me do my job more effectively.

    Well, it looks as though I signed up for that class just in time for the requisite periodic debate about online education in the Chronicle.

    There are some viable points raised, in both the article and the comments, about assessment and scalability, as well as the need to exercise caution about using technology simply for the sake of novelty. And I agree that it’s worrisome that many institutions seem to be both rushing and flailing their way into online curricula, terrified they’ll miss the train, unsure of whether it will take them where they need to go, and with no idea how to finance the trip (or pay the conductor).

    Okay, enough with the train metaphor.

    But a lot of the discussion surrounding online education typically seems to be driven by knee-jerk reactions against perceived failings that don’t always reflect an understanding of reality. Some people assume that all online or other distance learning is inherently inferior to what takes place in a traditional classroom. The Internet becomes a specter representing the imminent demise of public education, a bogeyman of bits and bytes.

    Death, wielding its scythe on traditional higher ed

    Death image by Mirari Erdoiza

    Data point: I earned my master’s degree online. I was living in Italy, and the only options for an advanced degree in public relations/media were in the United States. I couldn’t relocate, since among other things I had my own business, and for the same reason couldn’t afford lengthy on-site residency sessions that some of the hybrid programs (such as Syracuse) offered at the time. The University of Memphis had one of the first fully-online programs [PDF] in the field, so that’s what I chose.

    We had synchronous classes, scheduled according to the US Central time zone of the university, which meant that I would attend three-hour seminars from, say, 1-4 or 2-5 am my time. Which is why it took me four years rather than the recommended two to complete the degree. Meanwhile, I was running my own business and contracting out as a partner to a local PR agency. To say I was busy would be putting it mildly, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

    Was it worth it? Absolutely. Not all of the instructors were adept at the synchronous online model — remember, this was more than a decade ago — (yikes!), so there was some variety in the level of effectiveness. (One in particular tried to take classroom lectures and deliver them in the chatroom-style format we used. I can tell you there is nothing more mind-numbing than sitting in front of a computer at 2 am, watching a 40-minute lecture appear on your screen, line by line, at 1- to 2-minute intervals.) But I find that’s true of all kinds of classes. Most of the professors I had at UMemphis understood the need for what we now call a “flipped classroom” in that setting, and we had some truly excellent discussions of the material with classmates from all over the world.

    I have never had any reason to doubt the quality of the education I received through that program. As far as I’m concerned I attended an AEJMC-accredited program at a respected university. The online platform was just a different mode of delivery. (An often buggy and unreliable mode of delivery at the time, too, but we rolled with the virtual punches.) I certainly didn’t feel underprepared compared to the other members of my PhD cohort who had attended traditional master’s programs, and my master’s thesis became the foundation for the book I later wrote with Priscilla Murphy.

    Like any other form of education, you get out what you put into it, and I put a lot into it. I’m satisfied. I’m sure many others can say the same.

    Things have come a long way since then, technologically. This advancement has opened up terrific new opportunities to offer high quality educational modules at low cost to a vast number of people. As someone all in favor of more education for everyone, however they can get it, I think this is a great thing. Meanwhile, we also now have well known for-profit institutions that are often conflated with online education in the collective imagination. The lack of accreditation of many of these institutions, and the controversial consumer model that many feel undermines the integrity of traditional higher education, raises doubts in many people’s minds about the value of online courses. Combined with the aching budgets of most public university systems, it’s no wonder people are suspicious that these new programs are just the big box stores of higher ed, designed to deliver the minimum value deemed acceptable by the largest number of consumers for the highest possible profit margin.

    I don’t think online classes are a panacea. For example, I think online PhDs are a terrible idea, because a large part of a doctoral education has to do with socialization into the academic profession through research and teaching assistantships and immersion in the environment. There are also clearly some subjects, such as those requiring a laboratory component, that don’t transfer well to the online format. And as I mentioned above, there are many legitimate hurdles to be dealt with regarding assessment and scale that still need to be worked out. From a faculty perspective, since (so far) these courses are designed and offered separately from the regular campus curriculum, I wonder how universities and/or the MOOC providers are handling compensation, and what sort of recognition (if any) participating faculty gain as a result of providing these courses on behalf of the institution.

    These are all matters that need to be worked out before everyone rushes out to embraceIn any case, I’m keeping an open mind, and looking forward to learning a lot about gamification in a few weeks.