Archive for March 30, 2020

So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Jonathan Zimmerman on March 10 arguing that we should use the dramatic shift to online classes due to Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to research online learning (see article here).

For the first time, entire student bodies have been compelled to take all of their classes online. So we can examine how they perform in these courses compared to the face-to-face kind, without worrying about the bias of self-selection.

It might be hard to get good data if the online instruction only lasts a few weeks. But at institutions that have moved to online-only for the rest of the semester, we should be able to measure how much students learn in that medium compared to the face-to-face instruction they received earlier.

To be sure, the abrupt and rushed shift to a new format might not make these courses representative of online instruction as a whole. And we also have to remember that many faculty members will be teaching online for the first time, so they’ll probably be less skilled than professors who have more experience with the medium. But these are the kinds of problems that a good social scientist can solve.

I strongly disagree with Zimmerman’s argument. There is a lot to study here. There is little to claim about online learning.

What we are doing right now is not even close to best practice for online learning. I recommend John Daniels’ book Mega-Universities (Amazon link). One of his analyses is a contrast with online learning structured as “correspondence school” (e.g., send out high-quality materials, require student work, provide structured feedback) or as a “remote classroom” (e.g., video record lectures, replicate in-classroom structures). Remote classrooms tend to have lower-retention and increase costs as the number of students scale. Correspondence school models are expensive (in money and time) to produce, but scales well and has low cost for large numbers. What we’re doing is much closer to remote classrooms than correspondence school. Experience with MOOCs supports this analysis. Doing it well takes time and is expensive, and is carefully-structured. It’s not thrown together with less than a week’s notice.

My first thought when I read Zimmerman’s essay was for the ethics of any experiment comparing to the enforced move to online classes versus face-to-face classe. Students and faculty did not choose to be part of this study. They are being forced into online classes. How can we possibly compare face-to-face classes that have been carefully designed, with hastily-assembled online versions that nobody wants at a time when the world is suffering a crisis. This isn’t a fair nor ethical comparison.

Ian Milligan recommends that we change our language to avoid these kinds of comparisons, and I agree. He writes (see link here) that we should stop calling this “online learning” and instead call it “emergency remote teaching.” Nobody would compare “business as usual” to an “emergency response” in terms of learning outcomes, efficiency, student satisfaction, and development of confidence and self-efficacy.

On the other hand, I do hope that education researchers, e.g., ethnographers, are tracking what happens. This is first-ever event, to move classes online with little notice. We should watch what happens. We should track, reflect, and learn about the experience.

But we shouldn’t make claims about online learning. There is no experiment here. There is a crisis, and we are all trying to do our best under the circumstances.

March 30, 2020 at 10:20 am 7 comments


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