by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ June 26, 2020
Why are online courses failing? They fail for a variety of reasons, as we see in the post mortems on the spring 2020 COVID-19 emergency conversion. None of these reasons negate the inherent superiority of online education over traditional classroom education. This statement is critical to reconfiguring education to meet the reality of the 21st century. But on what is this superiority based? And how do we replace problems with effective education?
To understand this superiority, let me summarize online education’s structural improvements in comparison to traditional classroom education. Even with the slow adoption of educational technology over the last fifty years, the nature of all, formal education remains the closed room with a single lens on the world. This process is unchanged from the earliest traditions of learning. These forms are personal mentoring by a wise elder, whether grandparent, parent, the most skilled or successful family member or a master willing to take a suitable apprentice as a child matures.
This tradition begins with a mother, father, grandparent, or close relative, providing initial nurturing and training in necessary life skills and social mores. Public education formalized this into small elementary groups with personal care as a critical component. Public elementary schools, funded adequately with small classes, are the most successful part of the institutional structure and the closest to our tribal traditions.
Difficulties come from the transition away from a familial structure to an external apprenticeship system around the age of twelve. The shift is to specific knowledge/skill expertise and away from personal nurturing. These problems are particular to the middle school as all educators know. But the process of education continues with a subject focused ‘expert’ passing on personal information, now specifically in the apprenticeship model. The missing piece in public school is the inclusion of the growing apprentice in the master’s household. Literature is rich with the tales of the cruel master but also with caring and supportive ones. This role, in much-abbreviated form, is given to the educational counselor.
Success for students in the modern forms of this system relies on their ability to attract attention and interest from one or more teachers. In successful schools, this is encouraged and supported by a broader range of professional expertise, assuming the nurturing and mentoring process. But in most public schools this is a matter of luck for most students. To the personable and talented students, with luck and residency in the ‘right’ neighborhood, during each term, there will be one or more teachers filling in the master/parental role, encouraging new ideas and skills while helping to overcome problems and failures.
In dysfunctional communities, usually plagued by racism or other forms of intolerance and bigotry, only the favored students get help and encouragement. The others know this and are left to their own to find what they need. This systemic failing is well understood, and many educational reforms attempt to correct it with more teachers, counselors, and the establishment of interest subject academies creating cohorts of students to assist with belonging and mutual aid.
But behind this, the educational process as not changed. It is a closed room with a master and students. The master is the knowledge expert who provides the channel through which knowledge reaches the student. But in the 21st century, this is a very weak and narrow channel, and students know this. The reality of this has forced education to focus on training in processes, critical evaluation, information analysis, and collaboration in all forms but, still, in an institutional way based on the teacher as the repository of otherwise unavailable information. For millennia there was no other way to learn of distant information retained in scholars’ minds and their libraries.
Not surprisingly, the problems of getting all students educated to survive an increasingly tricky world has become, seemingly, insurmountable. The focus of schools from middle school to university has been on standards and ever more elaborate educational assessment tools to ensure that the critical skills pass through the narrow channel of the instructor. The real motivation is to keep students on track for completion of a certificate or degree that rewards the educational institution with more money and, hopefully, more students.
Within this context, moving into the mid 21st century, the inherent superiority of online education mentioned above comes from a fundamental relocation without yet addressing pedagogical change. This relocation is the movement of education to the planetary arena of information and knowledge while removing the teacher as a choke point. In elementary schools filtering information through a nurturing teacher focused on social skills, attitudes, and behavioral goals are essential. The teacher as a filter works if the class sizes are small and the teachers are supported and well trained. Beyond that, the teacher ceases to be a filter and becomes a ligature strangling student’s quest for knowledge to succeed in our world.
In the university system, the sanctity of the professor became protected by the tradition of ‘academic freedom’ to ensure the owners or government of the school would not strangle scholarship and teaching. While this has proven valuable in times of oppression, it has made the process of instructional assessment very difficult and has not prevented political pressure to censure education. It has also made the closed classroom and the resident sage the unquestioned reality of modern culture. That must change.
But we now live in a very different world transformed by communication technology, paradigmatic change, and the catalyst of a pandemic amid unprecedented climate crisis. Both the need and for the first time in history, the ability to control the spread of a deadly viral disease has made online education, by chance, the only safe harbor in this planetary storm. But to proceed, we cannot go back but must transform into a new model of education replacing the sage with the mentor assisting us on the path to knowledge.
Exploring the New Model Education
The problems with the new online educational model is a complex layering of causes and effects that must be understood. Within these layers, specific issues require analysis and development of solutions. The array of problems affecting current online courses range from technical delivery, i.e., the technology gap in our society, lack of technology skills among educators, institutional resistance to educational technology, and technology funding for education; to a significant redesign of pedagogy at all levels of education.
These are the layers of the problem facing educational institutions and students everywhere in 2020:
1. Educational technology has only slowly become an essential requirement in public schools. The need to use computer-based education at all levels was understood fifty years ago. Information process training is assumed to be critical for nearly all jobs in the 21st century. Yet educators have kept this as a specialized option and not part of mainstream education. These attitudes and the resulting avoidance of learning IT skills by educators is a fundamental cause of the current online educational failures.
2. The rapidly growing and unsustainably distorted asset distribution in the US and other societies is, now, entirely analogous to the failures of institutional racism in the destruction of human and civil rights. We must correct this at the national, if not planetary, level based on a universal right to online education. Online education is the merger of public libraries and public schools for the 21st century and is a right for any sentient species.
3. The construction of online educational courses is structurally different than the traditional form of classroom education developed in the 19th century. The use of the term “distance education” in schools, colleges, and universities preserves the assumption that faculty and student interaction is limited and online students are a very distant ‘back row’ in the lecture-based classroom. The reality is precisely the opposite, but only if the pedagogy focuses on student interaction, discussion, and collaboration. Online education changes the nature of information delivery and frees the instructors for more intense student interaction. Effective online pedagogy can transform education from passive receipt of information to collaboration and innovative thinking long demanded by businesses and organizations.
All of the above are now critical to restoring and improving education after a disastrous spring and summer 2020. The dysfunctional panic planning now taking place in all schools, colleges, and universities seek a return to the traditional classroom forms at high risk to students, faculty, and staff. While social distancing makes classrooms potential disease vectors, the emphasis is on replicating the conventional classroom experience as the priority. Online education is a stopgap and fosters the fantasy that the pandemic will be gone by 2021.
The epidemiological projections for the SARS CoV-2 viruses, with the lack of treatments or vaccines, require multiyear programs of prevention and social distancing. Repeated waves with regional peaks of infection, happening now, means the odds of periodic group activity shutdowns is high. Universities that are pushing for a return of students to campuses and traditional classes are discovering that required social distancing cannot happen.
The only alternative is hybrid classes, online with some activities in small group classrooms, or entirely online. Social distancing guidelines are disappearing to achieve higher density. Just as people are choosing not to return to offices, if possible, and not using newly opened restaurants, stores, and services make the return of students to risky classrooms unlikely. Current enrollments reflect this with significant reductions for fall 2020.
The reality is that all classes suitable for online form should be online. Why confuse the issue by forcing students into risky classroom situations when a better educational experience is possible. Much of this confusion is the result of desperate efforts to retain enrollment and resultant tuition and fees that colleges and universities have become dependent on for administrator and faculty salaries.
As mentioned above, there are many courses, and lab-based sections of courses that require hands-on in a physical environment, and these are expensive to make safe in a pandemic environment. Reducing time in close group proximity is essential but needs a complete redesign of courses to identify what parts are suitable for online activity.
At the same time, the planning focus on saving the traditional classroom format for disciplines and courses, predominantly liberal arts that could be entirely online, is both a risk and distraction from those courses requiring much higher change and innovation. The problem seems to be the refusal to accept the reality that most education and the majority of higher education will from now be online. Public health and the choice of students are creating that reality.
The pedagogical model required is the replacement of the teacher with the facilitator as a mentor. As is well understood, the firehose of information now thoroughly mixed with lies, conspiracies, and willfully distorted data is the current educational challenge. Critical analysis of conflicting information streams is essential for human survival. Only throttling information to a 19th-century flow rate is not an answer.
It is dangerous to allow a closed environment with one person in charge of each class with unlimited control over both course content and delivery. While state, school, and discipline standards define required student learning outcomes to be identified and implemented by each instructor, these rarely go beyond half a dozen broadly defined factual or disciplinary process specifics for each course. Even these minimalist standards are met with high resistance by instructors in colleges and universities as an infringement on their right to shape the learning process as they see fit.
My argument is not with the professional intentions of educators but with the effectiveness of their delivery. While we have decades of educational revision articulating the need for IT-type process training and self-directed education formulated as project-based learning from middle school on that change has remained an outlier to be easily ignored by those that wish to do so.
That is the underlying failure that now is crippling the forced conversion to online education. Online education exists in the planetary field of knowledge, demanding student-driven exploration, and problem-solving. Traditional teaching in an online environment is like teaching in a vast library and ignoring the array of books around the students.
The majority of the time spent in traditional classrooms is used for the slow delivery of information from the instructor, often with supplemental PowerPoint notes, web materials, or videos. The result is something like a very early web page from 1995 or 2000. In a classroom with only necessary educational technology and an instructor untrained in content design and media production, this is the best that the student can get.
An immediate and critical change is the enhancement of course materials built as part of popular internet media by professional developers, as happens in the wealthier schools and universities. At the same time, the role of the teacher is directed, not at reading old lecture notes, but at fostering student discussion and supporting project research and completion.
All who have spent time teaching online in the formative years of this century understand that online education is not distant from the student but, from the student’s perspective, far too close and intimate. You can and will work with the students individually or in small groups with all media at hand. This new model of education is not easy or cheap, but it is here now, and we are out of options. Will we make the change successfully or not?