Friday, June 20, 2014

Who ARE you, online student?

If, as many surveys indicate:

why is our solution to make education quicker, less structured, and more removed?

Times Union/Siena Research Institute poll conducted earlier this month turned up a wide variety of opinions about education in upstate New York. Some were contradictory and some were nuanced, but there was near-unanimity on one point: Our schools need to do a better job of giving students the job skills to survive in the modern economy. [emphasis mine]
This article from Times Union is suggesting that the results of this poll indicate that respondents value skills more than a college degree, specifically the kind of skills you might acquire at a technical college. The article goes on to say:
...there will always be jobs that require skill and training but not necessarily a college degree. 
Others in the education field say that some high schools simply want to be able to say they send their students off to four-year-colleges. That's the kind of thing that looks good on rankings of schools.
But now students are taking note of programs offered by BOCES offices, or career-focused schools that can serve as pipelines to the job market; others provide actual workplace experiences.
Hmm. So is the real problem that we aren't graduating students with degrees? Or that we aren't putting a quality education behind that degree?  It seems that we place the responsibility for the quality - the "what" and "how" - of an education on the instructor and the curriculum. That would leave technology's job to help out the graduation rate - the "how," "when," and "where."  

There's one question we often ignore: WHO?

Who enrolls? Who benefits? Who pays? These are important questions to consider because, as Lumina's CEO in this video interview, the current higher education model does not meet the needs of today's students. So who are those students?

Are they students who crave more flexibility in structure? This idea that students thrive once you relieve them of the constraints of such a thing like a class schedule obviously doesn't apply to everyone. As Time reports, a program out of Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis has been able to get 86% of participants to graduate on time or remain enrolled with just the opposite in their ASAP (Associated Accelerate Program) initiative. As the article states, 
In order to qualify...attendees needed high school grade-point averages of at least 2.5, and had to pledge to attend school full-time, not work, and continue living with their parents or guardians to forestall having to contend with real-world expenses such as rent and food.
They also had no choices of what courses to take or scheduling flexibility. ASAP classes began days after high school graduation and included 60 hours a week of rigidly proscribed classes and outside assignments.
In their first week, students get the sorts of basic lessons about contending with the college’s bureaucracy that can be easy to take for granted... 
Decent grades, full commitment, no life circumstances to distract, full direction, constant interaction and coaching...Although this is clearly for only one set of students we usually worry about dropping out, we can't ignore the effect of the built-in intense structure and personal connection.

Are they straight out of high school? A 2014 study by The Learning House found that about 80% of online undergraduates have earned credits elsewhere, and most are enrolling for employment reasons. This suggests that the majority of students using online education graduated from high school longer than last June. 

All of this is not to say that there isn't a place for online learning, nor that the traditional model of delivering education still fits with today's students. After all, one of the driving ideas behind the MOOC craze is the ability to give precious classroom time to actual practice and discussion. BUT - why do students enroll in these online programs at all? The main motivation for education - online or otherwise - is now employment-related, and this can give us a very good idea about who these students are. The study reports that the primary motivation for an undergraduate to enroll in an online program was "I wanted a career in a new field," and for a graduate student to enroll was "I was seeking a promotion/new position in my field." Students even reported that the most appealing marketing message was about job placement. However, the majority of students in the Learning House study did not experience a change in their employment status, nor did they receive a promotion or raise. 

(One could bring in the discussion around the gender gap at this point, since the highest percentage of online learners in this study were female undergraduates (71%); one might also bring in the discussion around possible age discrimination and the conflicts between Millenials and Gen Xers or Boomers since the highest percentage of participants were ages of 25-29.)

In all, do we assume we know more than we do about who these students are? The study also found that a growing percentage of online undergraduates are unemployed and use only financial aid to pay for their tuition, but wouldn't the most prominent subject areas suggest otherwise? Employment in business, health-related, and education fields isn't typically front page news, but these are the top subject areas for online degrees. What does that tell us about those fields? 

Are we assuming students can self-direct? Instructors usually use words like "rigor" and "intensity" and "critical" with passion and vigor to talk about the quality of their classes, and we do that by pushing - pushing - pushing students out of their comfort zones. This reflects my main concern with online learning: will that student learn as much as he/she needs to without me there? The study reports that most students chose the program based on the reputation of the institution, but criteria like "documented student learning outcomes," "classes are not demanding/easy," and "known to be a rigorous program" rank further and further down the list, respectively. This sounds like disinterest to me, and that's scary considering how much responsibility we assume students take with online learning. Put this next to the significant population of students who "have a clear preference for online study," and the overwhelming majority of both undergraduate and graduate students who reported the online class to be "as good or better than" a regular classroom experience." Could that be because there is no one to give that extra push to dig deeper? To take that idea to the next level, to challenge that idea, to move them out of their comfort zone?

What's more, a noticeable trend pointed out by Learning House's 2014 study is the increasing number of students who enroll online at institutions more than 100 miles away. This does suggest that online learning is a real benefit for rural students, but the highest percentage of students reported living in a suburban area. Are students choosing online education simply to stay in their comfort zone? 

Me & My BFF
This is not to say that technology has no place in higher education; I'm personally taking online classes, and it's been wonderful to be able to converse with other teachers from across the globe and use various interactive online tools available for learning the content. I've watched with joy as my dearest friend has blossomed into a wonderfully articulate, inquiry-driven, and flat-out smart cookie from her online classes. The fact that both of us are full-time working moms who can take advantage of a platform such as this is not to be overlooked; however, neither is the incoming nature of each of us. We both value education highly; are dedicated solidly to our work and our futures; and are well-versed in the areas of time management, goal setting, and focus. 

We need to be careful to use it as a tool and not see it as a "silver bullet" to get easy answers to the wrong questions. As American Enterprise Institute points out, there are several opportunities to use technology to benefit students that are worth exploring. However, if we are to promote it and examine how best to use it, the question should not be "when" or "where," but rather "who."

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