Online Curriculum–is It Improving?

From a link in Wes Fryer’s post today, the following video from Dr. Jose Bowen of SMU really hit home:

Online multimedia tools (podcasts, videos, slideshow tools) enable professors to deliver lectures online and, in turn, facilitate authentic learning through discussion and exploration in the face-to-face setting. What an inspiring vision that is! How I wish that this kind of leadership and vision proliferated in today’s schools and universities!

I envision a totally online classroom being successful with this model too, if discussion boards are adequately facilitated by interested and skillful faculty. Unfortunately, in my recent online grad classes at a Texas university certainly did not engage me in this way. I’m wondering if most online courses–both 9-12 and university–are so poorly designed.

My daughter, a sophomore in college, is currently living the nightmare of poor online curriculum design, and it is such a shame! This summer, she has taken both an online German language, and a political science class to satisfy degree requirements at her university. They have both been horrifically tedious for her and I would dare to guess that very little authentic learning has taken place–it’s been more about us paying for the course and her checking the course off her list. I daresay no meaningful learning has taken place, although she has earned A’s in the classes. Very frustrating in a time when an engaging and community-enhanced curriculum could have provided a rich experience.

Her current poli sci course literally consists only of reading a chapter from the breathtakingingly expen$ive text, and taking a 20-question online multiple choice quiz over it. Repeat–for twenty chapters! To be fair, the professor has tried to provide some relevant contemporary content to the course by assigning several extra credit readings (even John Stewart’s America) and Frontline videos. She’s really enjoyed those, and has wanted to talk about them–fortunately, she has her father and me! There is absolutely no collaborative element to the class, and unfortunately, the interesting, contemporary content serves only as extra credit–how many of the students don’t even bother to do the extra credit, much less discuss it with someone?
Watch video/take quiz/get extra points. No discussion or exploration of the subjects at all? Can’t we do better than that?

Are most online courses utilizing the multimedia and collaborative tools in the way that Dr. Bowen encourages at SMU, or is my experience and that of my daughter the norm? Are more engaging programs on the rise, I hope?

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A Vision of University Classrooms Today….

In a post today, Wes Fryer relates a conversation he had recently with a university professor at Oklahoma Christian University, where all students are required to use Apple iPhones or iPod Touches. He relates:

When I learned this professor taught at OC, I enthusiastically said, “Wow, you’re going to have all your students bring iPhones to class this year!” His response was:

Boy I sure hope not. I have a tough enough time having them keep their laptops closed all the time during class.

I almost passed out on the spot, but I was torn by a simultaneous urge to weep.

Sadly, Wes’s post reminds me of an experience that my husband and I had at a large north Texas university (over 38,000 students) a few weeks ago at Parent Orientation–our daughter is an incoming freshman there this fall. At one of our sessions, the Dean of the Honors College spoke to us. She was an engaging and entertaining speaker, using humor and compassion to make her point to a room full of slightly tender freshman parents, not yet entirely ready to set their kids off to the wider world . I was really feeling good about her message of helping all students to reach their individual goals, guiding them as they transition to the adult world with skills as well as a solid ethical base…

THEN she said it.
She said that she makes it clear on the first day of any class she teaches that no laptops, cell phones or handheld devices are to ever be brought to her lectures. Students are to take notes with pen and “an old-fashioned yellow legal pad.” Then, she said, if they felt the need to use their computers in studying or “transferring their notes later”, she was OK with that. In her mind, the act of writing information down with pen and paper passes for kinesthetic learning, I suppose. And, after all, what would students ever do academically with a computer other than transfer the professor’s wise words to a MS Word document? It all made me sad too, Wes, and so vividly brought to mind Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today.

As Wes noted in his post, this particular dean had no concept of the possibilities that 21st century tools can offer–and it seemed to be black & white to her. Computers can not be useful tools for learning in her classroom (or lecture hall). There is no room for the question How do we harness the power of this tool that keeps popping up in my lecture hall? Furthermore, this being the viewpoint of the DEAN, is there any leadership in that institution (or at least that college within the university) to foster continued learning by the professionals? To change the status quo and address the needs of these 21st century learners?

I will certainly say that the experience left me with a feeling of trepidation about dropping $8,000+/semester there for the next 4 years. I know however that 1) the situation would probably not be noticeably different at most American universities and
2)
my daughter will get from her experience there what she puts into it, and she’s an enthusiastic learner with a strong and stable background. (She’s a real keeper!)
She’ll be fine. But really, doesn’t she (and all those like her) deserve better?

Back to the questions that we keep coming back to: how can this change? What can we, in the profession, do? What are we doing that is meaningful, and what do we need to toss and reevaluate? How do we encourage other professionals to “buy in”?

Photo attribution: Old Notes, New Purpose by idiolector on Flickr. Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike license.

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