How to Fail in Online Education

If you’re going to fail might as well make it a train wreck

by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ March 14, 2020

American school systems and universities are now a pack of lemmings in full tilt rush to the cliff edge. For many, the fateful jump to fully online courses will happen on March 23, 2020. In the greater scheme of things, this is good. The critical slowdown of the COVID-19 pandemic can only occur by social distancing, handwashing, and careful personal hygiene.

In the vast educational scheme of things, this is long overdue. The full integration of online education with the traditional sage-on-stage, 19th-century classroom model should have been completed ten years ago.

For the students in 2020, this is a disaster that will add a year or even derail their college education. None of this is their fault. That burden rests entirely on the backs of today’s high school, college, and university administrators who could not see any way to achieve any significant change since the advent of the digital age in 2000.

The failure to integrate online education is not the case for all, but it is true of most. While the handwriting has long been on the wall, the reality of faculty contracts and teacher’s unions, boards of education, and state legislators increasingly packed with political stooges has made it easy to excuse anything but token actions.

The faculty refuses to change; what can we do? See, we have a few volunteers who are teaching online. Still, we are cautious to keep this under an utterly separate heading of ‘distance education’ to avoid perceived threats to faculty.

A planetary pandemic has brought fifteen years of ugly chickens home to roost. OMG, OMG, what do we do?

What’s everyone else doing? That is the fateful question that must be asked because the other great realization is the corrupt collapse of the US federal government. There is no national leadership that was always there to a greater or lesser extent to provide direction in significant disasters.

Luckily some governors, urban administrations, and educational systems, of necessity, began taking the reigns. But the US has long ignored local government as leaders. There is not a lot of strong innovation, but that is the nature of bureaucracies. They keep people busy providing services and processing forms. Originality is a career-ending character fault.

Twenty years of incompetence and corruption in the US political system culminating in the most corrupt and incompetent regime in US history has forced leadership down to the local level while gutting the so support structure. To the stunned bureaucrats who only know how to play safe the herd is their home and security blanket. Just do exactly what everyone else is doing.

The need to act in the face of a planetary pandemic and a tightly integrated and almost fully networked world demanded action. What we are facing is the inevitable disaster of necessity in replacing the national collapse. It is impressive that this is even taking place, but cleaning up from weak decision making and years of apathy ensures that we will watch and experience a national educational trainwreck.

For those of us who have spent much of our lives in education and years working with online learning and its integration, why is this happening? It did not need to happen. And, since it is happening, the focus must be on using it to correct those years that were lost ass-covering and looking the other way. The great fear is that this failure will be used to destroy the future of the educational system.

Online education is no longer separate from education. It is education. But it requires a very different pedagogy and that is well understood. It is a paradigm shift and changes the role of the teacher who is no longer a sage and dispenser of knowledge but an educational mentor and manager.

This changing role is a very challenging job, whether in high school or university. It means working with students rather than merely presenting them with information and exercises to complete. It also means managing the production of course materials from various sources online, including personal presentations of that material based on lecture material.

That means working with a staff of curriculum developers and media technicians to produce broadcast-quality content. The new educator role is a media director/producer but now based on professional discipline knowledge traditional to teachers.

In higher education, mainly, there is no teacher training but only a relatively short apprenticeship model that focuses exclusively on the content and outcomes. Presentation production and media delivery skills are not required or even considered.

Is it any wonder that the most frequent higher education experience in community colleges is steadily losing students? Of more considerable significance is the inability of these colleges to retain students to some completion point defined by the system. They don’t want to stay in the old classrooms.

The Lemming Solution to COVID-19

To reduce the population density and avoid pandemic transmission traditional face to face classes are being replaced with online sessions. The simple assumption made is that moving what faculty do in the classroom, e.g., talk about things, can just as quickly be done online in video conferencing applications.

A bit of technical information, there are two broad types of online meeting systems. There are video conferencing systems that have been around for many years for individual meetings. For small groups, these work very much like a face to face meeting once the equipment is available, and everyone has the directions. These directions need to include where to go and how to log in with the correct equipment.

This area has gone through considerable development in terms of simplification and cost reduction. For the last ten years, these services at a basic level have been free. This is the world of the webinar with video presentations and the ability to ask questions, usually through an included chat service. Well marketed versions of this are Webex, Skype, Zoom, and others.

The second type of service originated from chat and collaboration systems. These systems came from the original bulletin board systems in the early days of the Internet and included, for those who remember it, The Well, AOL, plus Facebook, LinkedIn, and many others now.

As technology has evolved, these have split into specialized niches and have picked up the video conferencing function in the business world. The most common forms of this are Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetup, and others.

These are not meeting based but topic and conversation-based to support a closed group in continuous conversation. The power of these newer conferencing forms is the maintenance of all content and discussion for the group while allowing both synchronous or asynchronous communication include presentations of further information or reports via video, PowerPoint, or other media.

As this has worked in the business and government world, e.g., Department of Defense, for years, it sounds exactly like what happens in the typical college classroom. In an emergency, this shouldn’t be too hard for faculty to use, and everything can go on with little change. What could go wrong?

Almost everything. For technical issues, think about the webinar and video meetings you have participated in and the need for professional people behind the scenes answering peoples’ questions, these are missing in this vast educational attempt.

Over the last fifteen years school systems, colleges, and universities have installed and developed online Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Sakai along with various video conferencing systems for administrative meetings. The LMS systems include all the functions needed for collaboration, discussion, and presentation but these have a definite learning curve plus the need to write curriculum for the platform and online education. Most faculty have never bothered to do that.

The power of online education is that it can be asynchronous, allowing people on different schedules and with various obligations to work together on a course. Not everyone can do that. People with little organizational ability, initiative, or motivation usually can’t make their schedule, so they need the demand for a time and place to be, or they drift away. This problem is not our concern here. In-person meetings are essential. The ration of online activities to in-person activities is contingent on the group and individuals involved. Education now is a hybrid of online content delivery and some events and in-person discussion or activities.

The move to online for courses and teaching, if you squint your eyes, looks like a webinar online with a video-conferencing application. While many faculty use PowerPoint presentations as part of the class delivery, the good ones use that to lead a group discussion. In a thirty person class, you may have five or six who will participate without being grilled. That is at the edge of what is possible in synchronous video conferences. It usually is a presenter, and questions go to a texting chat system. The emphasis is on sophisticated media with questions only.

Some years of experience with online education makes it very clear that sophisticated media for presentation is critical. That is how you deliver information, and that is best asynchronously. The often ignored benefit of recorded presentations is that they can be repeated, stopped, and thought about by the student. Student learning outcomes are greatly improved if this is emphasized.

The teaching then happens in scheduled online discussion one to one or small groups or, see above, in fully integrated collaboration apps that can be both synchronous at times or asynchronous. Integrated online education is the future of learning that is here now and has been here since the turn of the 21st century.

So what is happening? The stressed education leaders, lemmings not leaders, haven’t set thee things up for all courses to be done online, seem all to have decided that the current coolest video conferencing app, Zoom, can be used to replace the classroom.

Zoom is the wrong type of system because they can record and file things, but they are all designed to do that as a profit center with enterprises. The collaboration systems are the natural environment. Despite what seems to be the justifications for this approach, the problem is not usually students unable to understand the difference from a recorded presentation and an online chat. This failure is administrative in not understanding the difference as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the technical online environments.

The reality is that the failure to bring education online with the skills and support staffing to do the new educational production will now, in an emergency change, overwhelm the ill-prepared teachers, the overloaded conferencing systems, and the students without access to video conferencing laptops. That is even more true of the university staff attempting to jump ten years of operational development in one week.

We have in education, notably higher education, the necessity and opportunity to make up for all those years of waffling and failure. But first, we will need to admit group stupidity, a severe mea culpa, pass all the students for spring 2020, and swear to get it all right by fall 2020 (not really) but by 2021 for real.

The train wreck has started, and pandemonium will build until everyone decides to write it off and go home. Hopefully, by summer’s end, we will have gotten through the worst of the pandemic and can clean up the educational trainwreck and, probably, the political ones also.

The pandemic is just a taste of what can happen in the climate crisis as that steadily builds and surprise us with disasters. We don’t have time for incompetence or the absence of leadership when it is needed.

Thousands of educators are going to learn the price of their refusal to change the hard way in the next few weeks. But that may be the tardy beginning of the 21st century in education.

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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