Conjecture, Tension, and Online Learning

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Although low cost and flexible access make online learning appealing to administration, the topic provokes considerable tension among faculty. The authors explore why this might be so and outline the University of Washington Tacoma's top-down, bottom-up approach to change. A key piece is the UWT Initiative in Innovative Course Redesign, a competitive fellowship program aimed at creating a new mentor-apprenticeship model for online educators to help them better guide the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and dreamers.

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Colleen Carmean is assistant chancellor for Instructional Technologies, and Debra Friedman (deceased) was chancellor and professor of Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."
—John Cotton Dana

The tension created in universities and colleges over online learning is nontrivial. It has brought out some of the worst of the academy. The actual practice of online teaching remains wrapped in mystery, as faculty debate what they mostly haven't experienced and administrators often seem to want a quick fix to complex problems. Many suspect this new venture is low-cost education, with no concern for quality, student outcomes, or faculty expertise. Faculty members can sound like they are trying to protect their own sinecure. Discussions between administrators and faculty, or within a faculty divided against itself, too often disintegrate into questions of governance and control. In this cauldron, students' needs and interests can be inadvertently pushed aside as online learning is either rejected out of hand or too quickly adopted and commoditized.

While learning itself is free and open — education comes from endless sources, only some of which can be controlled by academic institutions — credentialing is jealously controlled and meted out for a price. In general, the higher the price, the more powerful the credential: on average, a degree from Harvard or Yale will yield a greater return for its holders than a degree from Oklahoma State or Lewis and Clark College. Even lower-status universities make up rules about how many credits students must earn before a degree is granted. These rules, which bind the student to the institution for a period of time, exist partly to give the degree meaning and partly to ensure a predictable income stream. But how long can an institution "own" a student?

As part of the American Council on Education (ACE) recommendation, at least seven universities (with presumably others to follow) will offer credit for MOOCs (massive open online courses). This move capitalizes on the gap left in universities' need to own students by granting credit. This year, in the face of opposition from higher education, the California State legislature backed down on requiring institutions to accept credits from online courses that substitute for oversubscribed and high-demand classes, but advocates insist the bill will be reintroduced next year.1 All this heralds a significant change in the relationship between traditional universities and MOOCs. Predictably, even MOOC providers are attempting to differentiate and commoditize open learning.2

No wonder there's tension: money, control, job security, tradition, and quality all are mixed into this confusing brew. And these are just the surface tensions; below are deep questions of inequality. For whom is online education designed? Who defines quality? Is a response to the demand for online learning a surrender to the hoi polloi previously kept from our academic gates? The worldwide hunger for MOOCs is hard to dispute, but it is also hard not to see that students in elite colleges remain untouched by the online experience: degree-based e-learning is often correlated with low-cost educational alternatives and for-profit newcomers to higher education.3 Precisely because online education has provoked these many tensions, we must find ways to disentangle the issues and move toward productive conversations within the academy.

Some faculty voices clamor that standards are compromised as — willy nilly! — professors are expected to teach without in-person students, while in front a camera, in short bursts, with no sense of interpersonal connection, no confidence that learning is happening on the other end, no possibility of an "aha" moment, no delight that comes from a great question asked or answered, and no exchange among students. These faculty members claim we are asking professors to forgo their joys in teaching, to say nothing of asking them to take what is ordinarily private into the public sphere. These critics might embrace or shy away from the camera — or might even find the camera an anathema — but they are nonetheless deeply ego-involved in teaching. Teaching is one of the least alienating forms of labor in the world. Online teaching does not share that characteristic — or so it seems to some of those who have been in the academy for a long while.

The Online Education Tinderbox

To understand why online teaching — of all things — is the tinderbox of the digital age in the academy, we'll have to take on one another's viewpoints. To begin this exploration we'll examine what we see as the three key reasons that online learning causes such powerful responses:

  • There is little understanding of or respect for the practice of online teaching, especially the time involved in developing expertise.
  • Online teaching robs classically trained, nondigital professors of many of the joys of teaching and creates distrust toward those who prefer digital pedagogy.
  • The skills required to be effective — and the preferences necessary to be interested — simply are not part of most professors' portfolios.

Tension 1: Respect for Online Teaching

To state the obvious: professors are a very long time in the making. The vast majority of the professoriate spend five to 10 years in graduate school taking courses, developing a research/scholarship/arts program and defensible level of expertise, and then producing original work. The development of expertise really cannot be accelerated all that much, and it is expertise — the ability to claim that one is as knowledgeable as possible in a given subject — that marks a professor. To teach that subject in a university is an honor hard-won.

We have watched successive generations of assistant professors struggle to define a teaching self during the probationary years. They almost always discover that teaching is a lot harder than it looks, and that they thrive in certain kinds of courses and classrooms more than others. It is not an idle exercise to ask, at tenure time, that those professors write a statement about their teaching philosophy. What is their relationship to the subject and to learners? One of the most amazing, lasting privileges in academia is to define oneself as scholar and teacher. These are the privileges earned through the long slog, and the now-minority of instructors allowed that privilege hesitate when peering through gates of change.

Developing online teaching expertise appears nowhere in the decade(s) of preparation to become a professor. How to transfer passion from the spoken word to the digital space is seldom discussed in faculty meetings. Innovators must often go it alone, learning as they can, with tools found or provided. Some suddenly face a time pressure to develop online courses, particularly when course access is a problem. Professors are asked to teach themselves how to do this work, or they are offered a bit of technology help, or the program outsources course development to faculty not on the tenure track.

To develop online curricula, administration focuses on the course rather than the professor, in distinct contrast to the investment made in the same person to learn to teach in the classroom. We do not ask that professors develop an online teaching self, even though they were asked to develop a classroom teaching self or a graduate mentor teaching self. We do not ask how the teaching self transcends place and is represented in the digital world. Little is asked of professors who engage in online teaching.

Instead, new expectations associated with online teaching appear from above, born of an administrative desire to teach more students with the same or fewer resources and to get courses online quickly in a highly competitive market. These expectations provoke skepticism at best and hostility at worst from faculty members who have passed through a long journey of high expectations and tests of expertise. This hostility leaves institutional strategy in limbo, with faculty resistance creating tension toward online initiatives and toward those — often younger, untenured, and non-tenure track — who are ready to embrace new teaching selves.

Those guarding the gate make a strong point: there is a reason that faculty are asked to articulate their teaching philosophy. It is in making explicit what we choose to offer that we begin to take our stand and differentiate our approach and chosen tools from pedagogical possibilities. If faculty members are asked to incorporate the online choices required to reach today's students, this articulation must push the institutional focus from course to professor and bring online alternatives into the art of teaching.

Tension 2: Joy Will Certainly Be Missing

As every professor knows, teaching a bad class — even one class session, let alone a bad course — is painful and lingering. In contrast, teaching a really great class — fundamentally unmeasurable, but absolutely knowable — produces a kind of natural high. This feeling derives not only from the material itself but from the way in which the lecture or discussion lights up minds.

Distinguished teachers can create these moments more frequently than others through an artistry that is absolutely unique to them. Even if they turned over every shred of material to another professor — however skilled — the student experience would not be the same. Distinguished teachers often have a portfolio of approaches and philosophies that allow them to produce those moments in differentiated settings: a brilliantly formulated lecture that electrifies an auditorium of 500; an intimate and interpersonally demanding format that skates the edge of risk in an upper-division or graduate seminar; a compassionate and generous approach to new learners in a freshman seminar; and so on. The joys of teaching are not uniform, and they do not depend on the professor alone, but rather on the fundamentally human nature of the classroom.

Online learning takes away the common bond: the moment. Online, there is an existential dead space in which the learners and teachers cannot hear one another. In truth, many — or rather, most — professors today are of a generation in which interpersonal relationships and an ability to negotiate the social world (even if limited) occurs almost entirely in a face-to-face environment. There is a serious generation gap here between students and professors; the younger generation has had far more experience in creating community and meaningful relationships online.

But, just as we're finding digital diversity in our students, so, too, are we finding a new generation of faculty. Pushback is beginning from the growing (but sometimes timid) younger generation, quietly saying it is wrong to claim that online community is not real community — after all, digital music is also music (a battle that occurred in the academy in the 1990s) — or that there is only one literacy, one canon, one practice. Softly and politely, for they are on the tenure track and beholden to elders, or are lecturers beholden to all, they say it is, in fact, possible to produce online moments of joy; one need only experience the new pedagogy that appears mysterious to those who have never entered a classroom without walls. While students are beating at the gate or walking away disenchanted, those in power may be ignorant of the unique connections and personalized learning of the online environment. Some faculty debates insert conjecture in place of experience and growing evidence, and inadvertently reject joy in online teaching while robbing students of the same.

Tension 3: Lack of Online Teaching Skills

Every teacher begins an apprenticeship in teaching the moment we enter school. Around age five, we become aware of the meaning of "teacher," and as we grow, we form our ideas regarding what makes someone good at the job. For many of us, one great teacher created our desire to teach. Years and years of apprenticeship through schooling followed, and then somewhere in graduate school, we taught. We learned, failed, learned more, and we practiced for years.

And then, one day, someone tells us our world is changing. Colleagues are going online where the apprenticeship doors are closed — locked behind passwords and privacy and new, digital classroom doors. Where are the teachers who inspire and encourage us to become like them? In our apprentice-based teaching model, only online students can learn to be online teachers. Until one learns online, there will be no perception of the joy, the magic, the "aha moment" that can happen there.

What if there were online classrooms where faculty members observe excellent teachers and engaged students at work? If the institution is serious about embracing the digital age — its new literacies and new learners — shouldn't we provide some avenue to help faculty do what we ask our students to do each day? Learn something new, building upon all that they have learned before. Learn new ways to engage the "new traditional" student. Learn to bring a unique teaching self to the online classroom, where everyone has a voice and where time and space stand still.

In short, build a space that would allow faculty to sort through truth, possibility, and conjecture. Too many faculty feel disenchanted by rapid change, particularly when really smart, dedicated people are being asked to give up the very things that have made them successful and offered them continuing reward. Too quickly, the classroom is being augmented or replaced by something that feels less — something in which faculty members lack skills and interest, and see no comparative advantage in adopting. No matter that disinterested faculty members are seldom, anywhere, being required to step online; perception is reality, and the faculty perceive a pressure to join an unwelcoming 21st century.

The Closed Classroom Bursts Open

The one trillion dollar question (per the student loan debt clock): How is the academy to meet the needs of the digital age and its next generation of educated citizens? Can the academy change rampant conjecture and create an informed respect and passion for the practice of online teaching? Facing strong faculty resistance, will administration at public higher education institutions take on the reform challenge and demand that faculty leaders support their colleagues through the changes needed to educate online? If higher education cannot change from within, will it be forced to change from without? Can classroom characteristics be reinvented in new containers in which time and space stand still? Our experience at the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) suggests that yes, we can, we must, and we will.

A growing number of faculty are willing to explore meaningful teaching and learning in the online environment, but have little opportunity to observe good teaching there. Online innovators have few avenues to share their discoveries. Curious but cautious instructors have no clear development path for creating an engaging online course. Failed models, bad courses, and painful workshops abound. For some faculty, it is not for lack of trying. The road to online teaching is paved with frustration.

In an age of just-in-time help, technology departments continue to offer just-in-case workshops to show us how to push buttons. Faculty support centers offer discouraging conversations on plagiarism and intellectual property, rather than compelling seminars on the innovative potential of online pedagogy. But how, what, and where are the courses that engage online learners in ways that make sense? What do they look like? How do we create them?

How do we imagine what good teachers experience in a classroom space that we've never seen and don't understand? How do the dull containers we all now use as learning management systems become more than spaces for managing documents, assignments, and grades? When did teachers become managers? Where is the "aha" moment in cyberspace? What are interactive and engaging teaching experiences there? How do we know when students are learning? How do we know when they feel lost?

Answer: A New Mentor–Apprenticeship Model

Answers to these questions can be addressed only by instructors struggling together to share experience, stories, demonstrations, and evidence that let us use the tools available in meaningful ways. Given the opportunity, online teaching veterans are often delighted to share their hard-earned discoveries, show their classes in action, and help others avoid the rocky shores of "newbie mistakes" — but they need institutional support to find the time, venue, and audience.

Creating a campus initiative that supports an experience-based collective practice means finding and rewarding innovative, successful instructors. It means looking inside the online classroom and identifying thoughtful course design: across the curriculum, within the discipline, and outside the glitter of technology-crowded disasters.

Innovative and passionate online teachers do exist. Educated course designers — e-learning experts — do exist. A serious administration needs to hire, promote, and support these professionals while continuing to help skeptical faculty find their way in this new world. A responsible administration also must demonstrate the importance of the hard work online faculty are doing by offering good-faith reward for valuable expertise.

Institutional Focus

Only when an administration works with the academic programs and the faculty will we change the academy — top down, bottom up, and peer-to-peer. Programs must begin to hire teaching faculty who already have a developed expertise and a passion for nurturing how students learn now in the digital age. Programs must cease to hire faculty who oppose online education on ideological grounds. The rules and structure must change for the institution to survive. Change will come on its own momentum when institutions choose to:

  • Provide opportunities for existing faculty to delve deeply into the philosophy and practice of online teaching and learning.
  • Hire innovative faculty members who willingly walk the tightrope of defining new teaching modalities and effective practice.
  • Hire academic administrators with online expertise, vision, and commitment to public good.
  • Insert faculty voices that "speak truth to power" and confront tenured obstructionists.
  • Create a culture of respect for diversity in teaching by making it clear that the classroom will not disappear and that the variety of learners, lifestyles, and learning (and teaching) preferences means nothing is lost, much is gained.

Still, simply putting advocates in place doesn't get work done. Designing online experiences is hard work, not the subject matter expertise of a faculty member. Course redesign for the online experience is a discipline, and one that has practices and expertise that can be learned. At UWT, this commitment is in progress, courtesy of a strategic will and a number of practical initiatives.

UWT's iTech Fellows Program

UWT's iTechnology Fellows Initiative in Innovative Course Redesign (iTech Fellows) is a competitive fellowship program in its second year that offers summer stipends for faculty members to work together to learn, design, develop, and peer-review new online courses.

ITech Fellows is founded on several principles:

  • It supports faculty who desire to become expert online professors, giving them experienced teachers, practitioners, time, and tools worthy of their commitment. The fellows work with peers willing to open their online classroom practice to observation and critique. Mentors show new fellows what a good online course might look like, and work with them to imagine their own course transformed to a quality online experience.
  • In its first year, the program accepted 11 courses for online redesign. Faculty members were accepted based on the course, reason for applying, and approach to teaching. Technology skills were not relevant. By summer's end, every course had passed an informal Quality Matters peer review, and a community of online colleagues had wandered in and out of each other's courses, commenting, questioning, sharing, critiquing, and suggesting changes. Fellows commit to share their understanding and courses with the wider faculty community, including documenting tips, tools, and ideas for good design.
  • In the second year, academic program directors — not individual faculty — applied, resulting in 16 faculty members in strategic clusters of courses designed to advance program goals rather than individual courses. Such goals included developing an online degree, a hybrid degree, a cluster of courses that met prerequisite course demand, and a new online certificate. Programs paid half the cost of the summer, demonstrating to their faculty and to the leadership that the programs were equally committed to serving our students.
  • Administration and current fellows are now imagining iTech Fellows 3. What is the next wave of innovation, of strategic need, of possibility? Is it time to reach off-campus to a wider community of practice? Can we effectively create an avenue for scholarship and reward in innovative teaching and create campus policies that better support teaching innovation in the tenure process? Can we create a clearinghouse for the complex understandings of academic freedom and intellectual property rights in the online environment?

Doing the Right Thing for Today's Students

We want our learners to succeed — especially first-generation students, for whom higher education is critical. For these students, education changes their lives, the lives of their children, and their children's children to come. An education opens doors and creates opportunity and possibility. This work is more than education; it is a form of social justice in action.

We recognize the sacrifice and hardship our students face. We also recognize that although all people love to learn, many of our students today do not love to learn the way we learned. Our faculty members are primarily oral and text-based learners. They did well in a system that taught only in this modality. We now struggle to understand the new other with visual, reflective, digital, personalized, kinesthetic, and applied learning preferences. We recognize that the world is becoming increasingly unlike us; the next generation of learners will be smart based solely on leveraging the technology in their pockets. The next generation will learn to be avatars.

We respect the digital-age learner, and some of us are beginning to include new literacies in our outcomes and expectations. This practice takes risk, demands new skills, and often fails. Our services fall short. And some, indeed, refuse the risk, saying they did not sign up for such disengaged and unprepared students. A strong administration gently reminds these voices to compare society's demand for change with demands of the laid off Tacoma dock workers and their college-age daughters and sons, with the tens of thousands of dollars in educational debt for degrees that do not reflect the competencies, outcomes, or values of the world in which we now live. This moment demands that we invent real change so as to nurture the hopes of our students who need flexible schedules, stronger services, more access, less debt.

The Challenge of Time, Tide, and a Looming Future

Technology has been kinder to higher education than to the many industries unprepared for its disruption. But it waits impatiently at our door — with engaging online choices; with the world's information free, unfettered, and mobile; with MOOCs, certificates, and badges that focus and demonstrate clear competencies to potential employers; with new markets willing to challenge the age-old definitions of a campus, a course, and an expectation of literacies.

To pretend that we will not soon see the death of "business as usual" is to live in a lovely past. The present, however, belongs to a nation going to college: young, old, rich, poor, black and white and brown and red. They deserve the best education we can deliver. They deserve a quality education infused with affordable, relevant, self-paced, and personalized learning. They deserve an education that prepares them for the digital world that is waiting for them when they finish their degree.

Institutions unable to demand, encourage, and inspire their faculty to lead the transformation will miss the opportunity to do what we have always prided ourselves in doing: guiding the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and dreamers. We are open to ideas and invite you to join us in creating a joyful and passionate teaching practice for anytime and everyone learning.

  1. Steve Kolowich, "California Puts MOOC Bill on Ice," Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2013.
  2. M. Nadeem, "Online Education, MOOCs, Ed Tech Matured in 2013," Education News, December 24, 2013.
  3. I. E. Allen, and Jeff Seaman. "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010," Sloan Consortium (2010).