Throughout his career as an orthopedic surgeon, when my father saw sweeping changes in the practice of medicine, he met them head on. In response to soaring medical malpractice costs in California in the 1970s, he and friends co-founded The Doctors Company, a new medical insurance company that keeps costs down by refusing to insure bad docs. He has written workman’s compensation regulations that reduce wasteful spending on pseudoscience treatments not by banning them (which would be politically impossible) but by limiting the number of allowed treatments. As systemic changes have hit his profession, he has jumped in and engaged. So when he asks me about my lack of involvement in possible sweeping changes in my profession, he has a lot of credibility. On the phone a couple weeks ago, he asked:
Dad: “Honey, you really know about online education. Why aren’t you jumping in?
Me: “Because it makes my blood pressure spike. Life is too short.”
Well, I may yet change my mind about jumping in. But I want to try to articulate two separate things: why the whole thing aggravates me, and what is actually important going forwards.
Disingenuous Motivations: People who have never invested much time in reflecting on their teaching or improving their teaching practice are suddenly crazy excited about online education. Their reasons are grounded almost entirely in personal advancement. Administrators want to build careers. Evidently simply doing what we’ve always done and doing it even better is not enough–to be a successful academic “leader,” you need some big new initiative that you can claim credit for. Individual faculty aspire to star status–they want to be the famous professor who is known for their topic. Their primary motivation is personal advancement, fame and money. No one seems to care about the students, or even understand what might help or hinder student learning.
Lack of Historical Context: The Open University in the UK has been doing online education for 40+ years, and doing it well. There is nothing new about online education. Administrators here are rushing a new program into place and explicitly saying, “We will be the first!” You’re more than 40 years too late to be first. And you won’t be the second or third either. And by the way, those folks at the OU have learned a few things. One key thing is that developing a quality online course well takes extensive investment. Materials need to be high quality, and need to be kept up to date. Simply asking someone to modify their lecture notes and then say them to a camera does not make an effective online “course.” It doesn’t even make an effective “video textbook.”
Lack of Involvement of Knowledgable People: Have you noticed the excited involvement of faculty from schools of education in VLRC efforts and VLRC startup companies? Uh, me neither. Take for example Udacity. It’s a spinoff from Stanford, which has one of the best schools of education in the world. Now look at the list of founders and advisory board members for Udacity. See any ed school folks on the list? Nope. Believe it or not, schools of education know a thing or two about education. Their lack of involvement in most of these initiatives is telling.
Lack of Sound Pedagogy and Recognition of Unsolved Problems: Video is a one-to-many transmission medium. It’s akin to a textbook that you read out loud. Learning requires more than reading/watching textbooks. Online classes are experimenting with ways to create more interactive learning experiences–like discussion groups and projects. Maybe intelligent tutoring systems can help. But how to do all this with a very low teaching staff-to-student ratio and no face-to-face communication is a hard problem that is currently unsolved. How can we start offering such classes for credit when we haven’t yet figured out how to create successful learning experiences at this scale?
None of those things bode well, but none of them is important per se. Here are the some issues that I believe we need to keep an eye on going forwards:
Inequality in Education: If online classes catch on, they could democratize access to education–or they could make the gap worse. If we can actually create quality learning experiences at scale, then there is tremendous positive potential for democratizing access. The fear, however, is that the online courses we are creating are going to stay pretty crummy, and as time goes on more and more people will find only the online versions accessible to them. The children of the elite will still get a face-to-face college experience, and more and more regular folks will get some videos to watch and a standardized test to take. The outcome here is uncertain. We could be on the verge of a revitalized meritocracy and increased access to quality education–or the opposite. This is the ball we need to keep our eye on.
The Teaching Profession: We already have an intolerable situation where adjunct faculty do the lion’s share of the teaching work (especially at community colleges), but are barely compensated for their time. The risk going forwards is that a growing percentage of the higher education teaching profession may be relegated to similar poor treatment. As music has become available for cheap or free on sites like Spotify, fewer people are able to make a living as musicians. Major stars make money from tours, and others are no longer fairly compensated. Is education trending the same way? Will a few superstars get superstar salaries while more people who do the hard work of real teaching get compensated poorly like today’s adjunct faculty? Some of the VLRC-hypers are dreaming of their future rock star status, but future adjunct-like status is more likely.
A rosier picture of the future of the teaching profession has higher ed teachers fairly compensated, and able to teach students better because they leverage a rich array of online materials to help them do their job (both face-to-face and online) better. Where classroom time is dedicated to stretching students’ understanding, and offering personalized support. How do we make that happier picture a reality?
Free online classes with large numbers of enrolled students are lately being called “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs). As writers like George Lakoff have eloquently explained, the words we use to describe a phenomenon shape how we think about them. I would like to suggest that a more accurate name than “MOOCs” is “Very Low teacher/student Ratio Courses” or “VLRCs” (pronounced “vlercs”).
There are many visions of the potential future of VLRCs. In the sunnier ones, we succeed in democratizing access to education. In the darker ones, we increase the gap between access to quality education by relegating less affluent students to cattle call online classes with no personalized attention, and more affluent students continue to attend deluxe in-person instruction. I hope the more democratic outcome can be realized. In our path forwards one way or the other, I think it’s important that we call a spade a spade. Calling them VLRCs is more accurate and focuses our attention on the key issue.
A call to action:
If you hear people talking about “MOOCs,” please respond with “VLRCs.” And be relentless about it!