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Let’s conduct our very own unscientific survey on e-learning

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper pokes holes in a 2009 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis that concluded students on average perform better in “online learning conditions than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Online proponents took that federal seal of approval last year and ran with it. But the authors of the working paper [PDF], released this month, claim that the federal meta-analysis [PDF] of online studies was “deeply flawed” and “its implications have been overblown,” according to an article published Tuesday by Inside Higher Ed.

“None of the studies cited in the widely publicized meta-analysis released by the U.S. Department of Education included randomly-assigned students taking a full-term course, with live versus online delivery mechanisms, in settings that could be directly compared (i.e., similar instructional materials delivered by the same instructor),” according to the NBER authors quoted by Inside Higher Ed. “The evidence base on the relative benefits of live versus online education is therefore tenuous at best.”

Proponents of bricks-and-mortar learning must be cheering.

Pawlenty stirs national discussion
The working paper arrives in the same month that Gov. Tim Pawlenty set off a national discussion with his “iCollege” comments on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” MinnPost writer Sharon Schmickle had an excellent follow-up story last week on why e-learning is neither cheap nor easy.

For those who haven’t kept tabs, Pawlenty wants the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to have 25 percent of its credits earned online by 2015; MnSCU has about 12.5 percent online now. He also has been nudging the University of Minnesota to do more online. Minnesotans are familiar with Pawlenty’s penchant for e-learning, but apparently it was news to the rest of the nation. Here’s what the governor had to say on “The Daily Show”:
“There’s another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says show up at 9 o’clock on Wednesday morning for Econ 101. Can I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from where ever I feel like? Instead of paying thousands of dollars can I pay $199 for iCollege?”

Last week, Inside Higher Ed interviewed Minnesota academics about the governor’s emphasis on e-learning and referred to my colleague’s story.

A colorful quote comes from J.B. Shank, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Shank told Inside Higher Ed that he is troubled by the governor’s portrayal of the issue as a battle between the iPod generation and luddites. 

“Technophilic talk is a pernicious distraction because it allows for a certain kind of justification for not giving the university the money it needs to provide the kind of education it wants to provide,” Shank is quoted as saying.

As you can imagine, the latest research isn’t going over well with the people who did the federal study.

So, let’s just run our own unscientific survey on I’d like to hear from students and instructors about their experiences with e-learning vs. in-class instruction. Did students do better online or in a classroom with the instructor, and why or why not? What kinds of classes work well online and which ones don’t?

Please share your thoughts below in Comments or email me at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/24/2010 - 08:17 am.

    My only direct experience with online teaching was through the U of M’s excellent UNITE system. This allowed lectures at the U to be simultaneously broadcast to sites off campus such as 3M, Medtronic, and what was then called Surmodics. The exams and papers were exactly the same for the folks who took the course on campus by physically attending the lectures and those off campus. Off-campus students could also ask questions during the lecture. I’d say the performance of the folks off-campus was slightly better than those on campus. This may have been because they had industrial experience and were perhaps a little better able to multifunction. The course was an introduction to biomaterials.

    Bill Gleason, Lab Med & Pathology
    U of M

    ps. the iCollege that the governor is peddling is a completely different method of which I am very sceptical.

  2. Submitted by Larry Copes on 06/24/2010 - 09:03 am.

    In some sense we engage in e-learning whenever we learn something online. For example, I learned something from reading this article. I think electronic media have the potential to make learning of academic ideas and skills as effective as this informal learning,

    To support that claim, I’ll cite unscientific evidence from my own teaching of elementary mathematics to college students. The most successful e-learning seems to have occurred when I’ve posed a problem that piques students’ curiosity and asked them to find out enough mathematics to solve it. Most of them use their online fluency to make a good deal of progress. Upon request, I give suggestions of terms to Google, and I answer their questions. I also moderate as they share what they’ve learned with each other (perhaps also online) to solve the problem.

  3. Submitted by Susan Perry on 06/24/2010 - 10:53 am.

    This past spring I taught my editing course at Metropolitan State University online for the first time. I am teaching it again online during the current summer semester.

    I spent many, many days revamping my course materials for the online environment. I wouldn’t have known how to do this without extensive training (for which I received a grant).

    I have found that teaching online is much more time intensive. For example, instead of answering a question once, in front of all the students, I must often answer the question half a dozen times (or more) for individual students. Answering all student questions in writing is also incredibly time-consuming, as is reading the dozens of student messages that go up on my course site daily. (Students “talk” and work on group projects together–activities I must constantly monitor. I also get e-mails–and phone calls–from them.)

    For these reasons, I had to laugh when our governor suggested that courses like mine could be taught for a student fee of $199. What, then, would be my hourly rate for teaching that course? My students complete weekly homework and discussion assignments, three major individual projects (and one group project), and three quizzes. I have 18 students in the course. (I started with 22.) The governor’s comments suggest he hasn’t a clue about what college teachers do. Either that, or he doesn’t respect what we do.

    As for the value of online courses to students, I’m not sure yet. I’m finding that my good students do very well in the online environment, but that weaker students (particularly those with less organizational skills) can quickly get confused and fall behind. (This is where the training I had helps.) I also miss having face-to-face conversations with students. (Yes, I realize I can do this online, but that presents me with a scheduling nightmare.) It may be that a hybrid course (mostly online, with a few in-class meetings) would be the best option, but my understanding is that those courses are just as expensive to schools as bricks-and-mortar ones.

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