Wednesday, October 05, 2022

What Makes for an Appropriately Rigorous and Engaging Online College Major?

This year, I'm serving on the systemwide University of California Committee on Educational Policy, and specifically I'm on a subcommittee tasked with developing guidelines for approving remote or online majors and minors in the U.C. system.

As we saw during the height of the pandemic, it's possible to do college instruction entirely online.  However, as we also saw, student engagement and learning is often not as good as with traditional in-person instruction.  Students show up on Zoom but then tune out, multi-task, have trouble paying full attention.  They watch videos at double speed.  They are less likely to ask questions.  There's less informal interaction before and after class.

Online majors (in which at least 50% of the course instruction for the major is remote) are coming.  It seems inevitable that they will eventually happen.  I have a chance to play a leading role in shaping policy at one of the largest and most prestigious public university systems in the world, so I want to give the matter some good thought, including hearing the opinions of blog readers and friends and followers on social media.  What should U.C.'s policy be on these matters?  I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts.

Some preliminary ideas:

(1.) Since evidence generally suggests lower engagement, less learning, and lower completion rates for students in online classes, we should expect that unless special measures are taken to increase student engagement and learning, an ordinary in-person class that is simply shifted to online presentation will have lower engagement, less learning, and lower completion rates.

(2.) Consequently, U.C. should not approve new online majors or the conversion of existing majors to online format unless special measures are taken to increase student engagement and learning.

(3.) Because of the necessity of such special measures, we should expect courses for online majors to typically have lower student-to-teacher ratios than otherwise similar in-person courses and to require more resources to administer.  The common image of online classes as cheaper to administer and as capable of supporting high student-to-teacher ratios, sometimes used as a justification for moving online, is likely to create inferior student engagement and learning.  Online education should not be justified by expected cost savings.  Instead, we should expect additional expense.

(4.) Remotely watching an instructional video is more like reading a textbook than it is like engaging in interactive education.  Instructional videos cannot replace person-to-person interactions in real time.  

(5.) The opportunity for informal interaction before and after formal instruction, either in the classroom, or just outside the classroom, or in other locations on campus, is also sometimes educationally important, even if the interactions are brief.  For this reason as well as lower expected student engagement during online lectures, online instructors should create ample opportunities for one-on-one or small group personal interactions with the instructor, beyond ordinary lectures and ordinary discussion sections.

(6.) Remote instruction, especially timed testing, often creates more opportunities for academic dishonesty than classroom instruction does, and so far there are no fully adequate solutions to this problem that don't objectionably invade student privacy.  Reasonable additional precautions might be necessary to discourage academic dishonesty in remote classes.  One-on-one interactions can help create student expectations of being held to account for understanding the material and can help confirm student learning.

(7.) Ideally, if someone learns that a student completed an online major instead of an in-person major at U.C., their reaction should not be to suspect that that student received an inferior education but instead the opposite.  The aim should be to create a reputation for online majors at U.C. as especially rigorous and interactive, where students have even more high-quality person-to-person instruction and even better learning than in traditional in-person classes.

(8.) Online majors should be justified in terms of creating better engagement and learning than would be possible with in-person instruction.  Increasing enrollment and improving accessibility are insufficient by themselves to justify the creation of an online major or minor, unless there are also clear instructional benefits to moving online.


Ben Orlin said...

I like your approach. The prevailing narrative (that going online allows big cost savings and increased access, for which we pay an acceptable price of lowered learning/engagement/completion) perhaps isn't entirely wrong. But 1) that view already has plenty of advocates, and 2) it seems better suited to other degrees than to a bachelor's. I just did an online MS, and appreciated the low cost and geographic flexibility, but would not have wanted (or benefited from) a B.A. on that model.

One question I have: do #1 and #8 stand in tension? If online instruction has lower engagement and learning, and will require extra resources just to bring them to parity with in-person instruction, then how can online majors ever be justified in terms of their benefits for learning and engagement? Do you expect this to arise only in special cases (e.g., an international studies or foreign language major, where online courses would be enable extended travel or field work)? Or can you envision online majors in, say, History or Communications that would meet your criterion?

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

In my estimation, idea 1) is the foundation of the matter. People, generally, have trouble holding their attention on anything. This is due, in part, to abbreviated life. I made remarks recently concerning a public propensity to avoid learning anything, when given a choice...either avoidance, or a stubborn insistence they have gotten it right when they have not gotten 'it' @ all. Abbreviations waste more time than brief explanation. If one is unfamiliar with the acronym, one must take more time to look it up. Many do not wish to be bothered with such research. I am worried about a grandson, who, being dutifully taught to compete, can barely write a coherent note. By write, I mean pencil and paper. The skill is not required now. He is learning a useful skill though: work. He has the time for this, one or two hours per week.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Ben and Paul, my thought is that we should be open to being convinced that an online major *could* have higher engagement and learning than the standard in-person major, if enough resources and expertise were devoted to it. I have had some online instructors describe to me the amount of effort they put in and the extra measures they put in place for plentiful one-on-one contact with students, as well as the special online resources they use. With enough of this, it is not at all inconceivable that a remote major could be a better learning experience overall than a typical in-person major. But it won't be cheap and easy!

Anonymous said...

The evidence I’ve seen on online learning is very complex.

For example, one large randomized controlled study found science students do 2% worse on average. Significant, but substantial? Maybe if the only concern is the institution’s reputation. Maybe not if the concern is maximizing the total of quality education.

Another study found that students who are forced into online courses do slightly worse as a whole, but those who self-select into online do better than those who opt into in-class, on a standardized in-person exam. This seems to suggest that online teaching needs less oversight!

But I’m always concerned about the confounders. It’s hard to know exactly how equivalent the presentation was between in-class and online. (If you want links to these studies I can try to dig them up. They’re obviously more complex than I’ve described, and I could be misremembering them. )

I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that in-class learning involves a lot of student interaction with the instructor. Usually a few students dominated interaction in my classes, and the vast majority had zero direct interaction. I’ve found the same as a professor, despite my attempts to get them more involved. The reality is that for each hour in class, even if you don’t lecture you can’t really spend more than a minute with each student. With a lecture the “interaction” might consist of a question, and rarely a bit of back-and-forth. It *feels* more interactive face-to-face, but not sure how substantive that really is from a learning perspective. It may or may not be helpful for motivation. In the discussion boards I’ve run in some classes, where each student has to substantially respond to another student, there’s much more (formal) student-to-student interaction than I usually get in-class. And if you have time, you can have direct interaction with each student in a way that rarely happens in class.

The biggest advantages I’ve seen of online are self-pacing of learning (including skipping back in videos to get that explanation again before moving to the next step, and, believe it or not, students actually learn more when listening at 1.25 or even 1.5 speed, probably because they stay more focused) and self-selection of learning times (like when you have kids or work to manage). Good teachers will also include more activities and less long lectures/videos… I think the studies I’ve seen have suggested video lecture attention drops after 8 minutes. So the usual suggestion is to chunk videos. While in-class lecture attention drops after 20 or so, with a steep drop after 50 or 70, but chunking can be hard to manage depending on the content. (Could be remembering those numbers wrong.) Also I think profs often over-estimate how enraptured students are in class… for the prof it is 100% engagement, but for students it’s pretty easy to daydream or be distracted, especially if taking notes on a device.

But there are definitely downsides to online. The informal interaction usually moves to messaging groups where only a subset of the students might be included. The energy is very different, and I find passion for learning is harder to transmit. Myself I’ve had near-zero success running live lectures, relative to in-class, and for courses where lectures are crucial it’s going to be very hard to move online. I haven’t found the number or questions I get from students to be substantially different (depending on discussion board setup) but off-topic and personal digressions are much rarer online. I also intervene with a lot more students with mental issues when I see them in person, especially for dramatic mood changes. Online I only catch those students if they miss major assessments and I ask them why.

Anonymous said...

Anyways, all just to say that online isn’t necessarily worse or better, or in need of a massive amount of special treatment. Asking people to move their courses online with no planning and next to no foresight on how long it would last was a recipe for disastrous course preparation, poor results, and a poor impression. And some profs won’t be suited to the format. But some will be better, too. The teacher who rushes out rather than stay to answer a question after class might well write a helpful email response when they have the time.

I do agree that the social aspect is something that needs much more help than in-class. (However, another study I saw found introverts had more interaction online than when in class... and make up roughly half of the population.) Depending on what the most authentic assessments are, tests in-class can be far easier to monitor for cheating. (But early tests are hard on many students and letting them write when in a good mental state will get a more valid measurement of their ability.)

It’s just really, really complicated. I’ve thus generally been an advocate for hybrid classes - half-and-half. You can take advantage of the strengths of both formats in the different components of each course. E.g., major assessments in-class, but formal student-to-student interaction in discussion boards or online group work where everyone participates. Self-paced studying where practical, but in-class introductions or coverage of topics where questions often come up. Etc.

Some have also advocated for hyflex where both options are provided and students can choose to do either. (Something analogous to when my old profs would say “you can read the text or come to the lecture”)”.) But for myself to create that properly would increase the workload by 50%.

I do have some courses where in-class works far better. And others where online resulted in much better performance. And it’s not just about the course - in first semester/year, meeting people in person is especially valuable. Unless you’re specifically targeting online-only, having at least one in-class per semester would likely be good for attrition. One old study found having close class friends was the biggest predictor of avoiding attrition they could find. (Other studies peg other factors.)

I believe it’s an open question as to whether profs make good choices on when or when not to put their own courses hybrid/online, if given the option. Making it a departmental decision helps with some of the conflicts of interest but introduces power dynamics as a factor.

One last thing…. the evidence from implementation science in education is apparently that it’s basically impossible to impose teaching methods from the top down and get average improvements. To avoid this I’d suggest setting general goals that need to be achieved (teacher-student interaction; student-student interaction; active learning; authentic assessment; etc.) rather than try to micromanage the specific implementation methods across all courses (every course must have a discussion board/no tests/live video classes of a certain length/etc). I’ve seen a lot of the latter lately and while well meaning, it’s a recipe for mediocrity.

Sorry for the length, has been a big discussion here too. I’ve appreciated your blog and wanted to try to give back a little… hope some nugget is useful. My experience only my own. Good luck - a very difficult thing to create a general set of rules for!

Arnold said...

My wife, a 1967 ca state college graduate and I, took up this Curiosity of learning proposal...
...we began with the question of Study this morning, we are still there-here studying study at 10:21 am...

She has ask at least once, what are we talking about...
...I said I think we are talking about time, in two senses, duration and present time...

That education at the UC administrative level is Hope...
...thanks for chance to again and again learn 10:38am...