reflections on teaching hybrid and the MOOC's influence on the future of higher ed
"Hybrid" (H) and on-line (OL) courses are all the rage these days. H is a relatively conventional class, where face-to-face (F2F) interaction is reduced quite a bit-- say, by 25-75%. OL can refer to aspects of a conventional or an H course. But fully OL implies no F2F with an instructor (except perhaps for exams)-- what I'll discuss here.
In particular, "MOOCs" (Massive Open On-line Courses) are getting the lion's share of attention in the media, since they are making a splash at the larger, more-famous universities-- and they have the potential to fundamentally alter the landscape of higher ed. Along with continued decreases in state subsidies for higher ed and a growing focus on student debt, the market for higher ed will change somewhat (or perhaps substantially) in the near-term and the long-term.
As one would probably expect, the outcomes within MOOCs (and their more modest cousins, H and small OL courses) have been mixed. Some of the mixed bag is due to the fixable foibles of early adapters. But the rest is due to the inherent limitations of the medium. (From my files, here is an "early report card" on outcomes; an article on SJSU reducing their MOOCs after 50% F's; and a blog post reporting the experience of an effective teacher taking a MOOC.)
At smaller schools and those that focus moreso on teaching, MOOCs are far less common. But H and modest-sized OL courses are certainly in play. And even if a school doesn't offer many of these courses, they certainly must worry and accommodate their burgeoning presence in the marketplace.
My direct experience? I haven't taught an OL course yet--and I doubt that I ever will. (I have an administrative load; mostly teach upper-level classes at a teaching school; and thoroughly enjoy F2F teaching.)
I have taught two H courses. Both courses are upper-level economics courses. Labor Econ relies on reading quite a bit and is not particularly technical. (Labor can be more technical at a school where Intermediate Micro Theory is a pre-requisite.) Econometrics is a homework-intensive course that culminates in an ambitious project. It is a technical course, but is taken by math-comfy people, so the need for in-class coverage is reduced. I've done both as "independent study" courses, so both can be accomplished without much interaction from me. In a word, both are easy to construct as H.
A few reflections:
1.) It is difficult to do these courses well. (I'm tempted to say that teaching them could be easier, but I don't think that's true. At minimum. constructing any sort of hybrid or online course requires some upfront effort. And if someone wants to put in low effort in F2F-- use the same old notes; tell a lot of stories; give multiple-choice tests-- it doesn't get much easier than that! For lazy teachers, the prospective advantages would be increased schedule flexibility-- and for some, less contact with students.)
Assuming that away, these delivery methods require a lot more effort. First, since they are not our traditional delivery methods, they require thinking in new ways. Second, they require different assignments-- to engage the material without as much F2F time. Third, they typically require more grading-- the bulk of the work, and toil, of teaching. As one of my colleagues used to say: I'd teach for free, but they pay me to grade.
Bottom line: Perhaps it varies by field, but my guess is that if someone tells you that OL is far easier, then they're probably not doing a good job.
2.) Thus, the push for non-traditional delivery methods is unlikely to come from professors. (According to a CHE report cited by Harpers in May 2013, 72% of professors teaching OL do not think students should receive credit for them!) The most likely candidates are A.) schools that want to compete with traditional universities, given the technological advances that make this delivery more feasible; and B.) related to that, consumers who are interested in less F2F or the lower-cost/quicker/lower-quality educational attainment provided by these schools. Which students will find H and OL more attractive? Those who are more interested in education as a credential; those who want the flexibility; and those who have (or imagine that they have) higher levels of self-motivation.
3.) H (and OL) courses are more challenging for me to teach, because I have high expectations but little time to build relationships with students. I learn my students' names in the first week and in a standard semester, get to know them relatively well. They're more likely to sense that I want the best for them, when I've had more time. With less relationship and high standards, the likely of me being mis-perceived are greater.
4.) The challenges of H and OL vary by discipline and level. It would be quite different to teach a first-semester principles course at a liberal-admissions university vs. a second-semester principles course vs. an upper-level course. In our former E150/200 set-up, the first course was easier but the troops were green. The second course was much more challenging/technical, but the troops were more seasoned. H and OL were feasible in each, but the challenges were quite different. Returning to the standard Micro/Macro combo, we'll start with a tough course and rookies-- very challenging to communicate the info and to engage many students who are not high on self-motivation. Not an enviable task!
5.) Related, one must be more careful with the syllabus and communicating expectations. First, you have less time to communicate such things in person. Second, you won't want to spend time on such things vs. material. Third, again, they don't know you as well, so the written word become more important. A nice article: "10 rules" (including the importance of a clear and more-detailed syllabus and forming community within the class). See also: impressing the importance of on-line etiquette and the inherent challenges of communicating on-line with little personal relationship.
6.) H and OL courses require a (large) degree of "flipped-ness"-- where students' first look at the material is before class, as they engage concepts through reading, homework, etc. (In non-flipped, traditional, students' first exposure to material comes from the prof's lecture: lame, boring, and inefficient.) Since I've always used a rigorous-graded version of "Socratic Method", I've done flipped forever. So, this part of the adjustment would be relatively easy for me. But others will find it difficult even to imagine what to expect. (See; articles on how to flip on-line and a few specific strategies.)
7.) MOOC's can do some things relatively well. (For a look at market innovations in areas of comparative advantage, see: Greg Beato's essay in Reason.) But if what you're doing can be easily replaced by a MOOC, then you haven't been doing your job very well and deserve to be replaced. (In the same issue of Harpers, they cite an AAUP report that 3/4 of teaching positions are filled by graduate students or adjuncts. Some do fine job-- and perhaps many do a better job than profs who focus on research-- but...) Going with the extreme for illustration purposes: If your approach to teaching is a lecture with multiple-choice tests, then a videotape of a more theatrical performer would be preferable, right? If they get tired, they can hit pause-- or if they get lost, they can hit rewind.
8.) Related to this, professors and schools need to emphasize their "comparative advantage" in F2F if they have it. Sure, such schools should make H and OL available. But there will be a demand for F2F for the foreseeable future-- and those who are skilled at this should not shy away from its provision. In Touchstone, Arthur Hunt argues that "flesh-and-blood" should have a number of advantages because of what we know from theology.
Higher ed is entering a time of significant change. But when trying to anticipate the changes, make sure to consider the many different models of university. At the end of the day, I expect MOOCs and smaller on-lines to change the landscape-- but modestly, and mostly, for larger, research schools. (On avoiding doomsaying [although not the greatest analysis], see: this very recent CHE article.) The value of F2F-- if done well-- for the many students who lack self-control, is simply too high to be replicated by MOOCs.
I expect the increased focus on student debt (and higher tuition prices-- from lower state support) to encourage students/parents to be more careful when sending Johnny/Jenny off to college-- again, impacting more expensive schools and driving people to less expensive alternatives (e.g., living at home and attending regional public schools such as IU Southeast).