May 31, 2018

What 6 Colleges Learned About Improving Their Online Courses

Debates around online education often get stuck on the question of whether it’s as good as face-to-face learning. Perhaps the better question is, How can online education get better? After all, many students choose online courses for their convenience, and in-person classes are often not an option for them. More than six million people courses each year, including one of every four undergraduates.

Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges” wades into those waters with a study of three community colleges and three public research universities, all of which have at least 20,000 students, and enroll significant percentages of Pell-eligible students and students who take online classes. The authors crunched a lot of data to determine how digital technologies affect access, student outcomes, and return on investment.

First, the good news. Researchers from Arizona State University and the Boston Consulting Group found that online education can boost retention and graduation rates, while saving students time and money. But — and this is a big one — to be successful, colleges need to develop a variety of delivery models to match students’ needs, and make significant investments in things like instructional design and student support services. In other words, don’t expect a series of videotaped lectures to get the job done.

A lot of the report is aimed at higher-education leaders who want to think strategically about ROI. But I’ll focus here on a few things that are most relevant to our readers, those on the front lines of teaching.

Colleges in the study reported higher retention and graduation rates — as well as faster time to degree — for students who took at least some courses online. This lines up with research out of the State University of New York system, which found that a blend of online and face-to-face classes seems to work best for many students. The digital-learning study also found that the student body becomes more diverse with online offerings: They draw more older students, women, and Pell Grant recipients.

High-quality digital courses don’t just happen, the report notes. They require instructional designers, data analysts, multimedia experts, and strong student-support staff. The colleges in this study were willing to invest quite a bit of money: The University of Central Florida, for example, spends more than $8 million a year on its 90-member staff in its Center for Distributed Learning.

Working with a team of specialists can provide a faculty member with valuable expertise in the areas of learning science, course design, and technology, while ensuring a level of consistency for students taking digital courses. Those additional investments, the report found, can be offset by reduced overall delivery costs (namely, larger class sizes, fewer physical facilities, and potentially greater use of adjuncts).

A number of colleges also build online tutoring and coaching into their online courses. And some give faculty members the technology needed to provide personalized feedback to students — which is often critical to maintain engagement with online students.
Faculty members are often hesitant to try online teaching, but the study found that successful institutions engage senior professors early, take a collaborative approach to decision making, support strong professional-development programs, and offer incentives like additional pay or course release to help smooth that path.

Research, In Brief

Colleges can help increase rates of completion by paying attention to students’ psychology, according to a study by Mesmin Destin, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern. In particular, he writes, colleges can bolster completion by "encouraging growth mindsets, linking classroom work to real-world aspirations, and using online modules that help activate students’ motivation and sense of belonging."

People who are more familiar with predictive analytics than their peers are more skeptical of these tools, researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College found. Advisers and end users of predictive analytics were more critical than administrators, and people who work at institutions that have been using the tools for some time had more concerns than those that were still in the planning stages of using them. Respondents described a "lack of trust” in the validity of the tools and in the ways data are used. Other critiques centered on inadequate training and support, and ethical misgivings about the impact of predictive analytics on the relationship between advisers and students. A few of the people surveyed, the authors wrote, "felt like they were being asked to trust technology more than their own judgment."

For Your Summer Reading

Michael F. Maniates, a professor of social sciences and environmental studies at Yale-NUS, writes that the most influential book for him has been Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. “Palmer argues that good technique and punchy assignments aren’t enough,” Maniates writes. “He insists that, as teachers, we must reflect deeply about who we are in the classroom and who we wish to be — and why we come to these conclusions. Courage has had a profound impact on my own teaching practice — it’s a smart, deeply affecting book that speaks to the core of our work as mentors."

And John A. Lynch, academic-technology manager at UCLA's Center for Digital Humanities, writes that he highly recommends Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller. The book expands on the topic of cognitive load, which is mentioned in another text Lynch recommends, How Learning Works, by Susan A. Ambrose and others. In particular, Lynch says, Chapter 4 of Efficiency in Learning "goes into detail about the research that they’ve done on the high cognitive load that lecturing creates, the reason most instructors don’t understand why their students can’t learn well from lectures, and ways that instructors can redesign their lecture and accompanying materials to reduce that."

Thanks for reading!

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