How to Talk About Online Instruction

This week the Board of Trustees of the California State University (CSU) met in Long Beach and, as is the custom, they were addressed by, among others, the Chair of the CSU system Academic Senate, Steven Filling, an accounting professor at CSU, Stanislaus and a member of AAUP and the California Faculty Association.  Earlier the trustees had discussed online instruction, expressing the common enthusiasm of outsiders for the alleged promises it offers and voicing some fear the CSU might fall behind in this area.  Filling chose to address their concerns directly and his remarks demonstrate well how to talk to trustees and others about this issue.  With Steve’s permission, here’s what he said:

I ask for Chair Monville’s indulgence to speak briefly about online instruction. I teach blended classes; I taught an online class once; it was a very frustrating experience for me and for my students and I decided probably it wasn’t a good thing to repeat until I understood it better.

Trustee Eisen, you used the metaphor of a path through the woods earlier today and I think that’s an apt one. We are searching for a path through the woods that gets people to the other side, preferably in an expeditious manner, but we have to acknowledge we can’t build the 405 [a chronically jammed freeway in Los Angeles] through the woods. We can’t because some people are driving. Some people are walking. Some people are biking. Some people want to take the bus. The pride of the CSU has always been its ability to deal with a great diversity of students and backgrounds and find ways to let people succeed. Above all else we don’t want to lose that. So when looking at online instruction I think the most honest thing I can say is we are learning. My colleagues and I – my 25,000 colleagues and I  – are doing all we can to figure this out, subject to one dictum. Our students come first. I’m immensely aware that what I do impacts people’s lives and I am probably conservative with respect to taking chances with the outcomes on those lives. Our students come first.

What we know from the research– interaction matters. Research tells us that relationships with faculty matter more than which textbook is used. We also know that online instruction has some issues for undergraduate students, most especially for undergraduate students who might not be fully prepared. And especially for undergraduate students coming from other than educational backgrounds: in other words a lot of our underrepresented minorities.

Trustee Taylor asked this morning for information on campus uptake of online instruction and wanted to use that information to determine which campuses are “laggards” in that regard. I have to confess I find that a troubling request because my perception is my colleagues are adopting online education when it fits their students. Our students are just of such wide variety that it makes absolutely no sense to treat online education as if we’re ordering meals at McDonald’s. The students at Dominguez Hills are not the students at San Jose or the students at my campus, Stanislaus. The strength of the CSU has been our willingness and ability to treat them differently.

Likewise, the notion of being efficient by using a single learning management system has some problems. One of the realities of education is that it requires innovation. And innovation requires people to think about what they do in different ways. That is highlighted by having opportunities to use different systems. I use Blackboard. I also use Moodle – and that’s a part of pushing the edge and one of the things we don’t want to do is trounce on that innovation by forcing people to use a single package. I think there are a lot of false efficiencies of standardization at play here, and given it’s almost lunchtime I keep popping into restaurant metaphors. We can’t say we will only have McDonalds. Maybe it’s good to have McDonalds and Chipotle and another restaurant once in a while. Maybe even Chez Panisse or French Laundry occasionally.

In summary, my colleagues are on on-line education – they’re the front line on how to do it and no matter what Arizona State says, California is the place where it starts.  They’re on it, They have been on it, but will continue to be on it subject to our prime directive. Our students come first. We will not do things that hurt them.

Coincidentally, the previous day the Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent piece highlighting exactly the kind of research to whilch Steve referred, entitled “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education,” by Kentaro Toyama,  associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology.  You should read the whole article, but here are some excerpts:

. . . even when technology tested well in experiments, the attempt to scale up its impact was limited by the availability of strong leadership, good teachers, and involved parents. . . .  In other words, the technology’s value was in direct proportion to the instructor’s capability.

Over time, I came to think of this as technology’s Law of Amplification: While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm. . . .

We confuse business success with social value, though the two often differ. Just for example, how is it that during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.

The Law of Amplification provides one such framework: At heart, it affirms that technology is a tool, which means that any positive effects depend on well-intentioned, capable people. But this also means that good outcomes are never guaranteed. What amplification predicts is that technological effects follow underlying social currents. . . .

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online. . . .

The Law of Amplification’s least appreciated consequence, however, is that technology on its own amplifies underlying socioeconomic inequalities. To begin with, the rich will always be able to afford more technology, and low-cost technology in no way solves that. There is no digital keeping up with the Joneses.

But even an equitable distribution of technology aggravates inequality. Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby. And these things are even more true online than offline. Sure, educational technologies can lower costs for everyone, but it’s those with existing advantages who are best positioned to capitalize on them. . . .

So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no technological fix, and that is perhaps the hardest lesson of amplification. More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.


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  1. Pingback: Just Soft Machines | The Academe Blog

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