Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2017

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Cheaper mass online courses cheapen students’ education

On Friday the Board of Regents will hear a presentation about the top issues facing the Nevada System of Higher Education. Not surprisingly, funding and student success will take center stage, yet one proposed solution should raise some eyebrows. It would make teaching cheaper by replacing faculty-taught online classes with massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs. The surprising part isn’t the innovative shock value of the solution, but that MOOCs are being discussed again.

Variations of online classes started in the 1980s as an extension of correspondence courses. Higher education became more accessible to rural and low-income students, and continued to grow in popularity. But after the economic collapse in 2008, many higher-ed systems started looking for innovations to make teaching more efficient and less expensive.

In Nevada, for at least 10 years, regents have been pitching plans to reduce institution budgets through cheaper online core courses — the 100-level courses every student must take. And for the same number of years, the “cheaper through technology” premise has been proved wrong over and over. We have ample evidence that while online classes do eliminate the need for some classroom space, they also require space for the equipment and IT support needed for online classes. And the equipment, software and IT support aren’t cheap and require regular upgrades.

Because community colleges specialize in 100-level classes as well as high-tech workforce training, online community college courses flourished. Faculty members designed and taught them. This included lecturing, creating and grading assignments, and handling any remediation needed to ensure students acquired the skills and knowledge needed for a degree.

Once the community colleges began teaching increased numbers of online core courses, the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle. We quickly discovered that many students needed that modality of instruction to finish faster or even to go to college at all. Students are employed in the service sector and work schedules that vary week by week, are military personnel who may deploy on a moment’s notice or are parents who can’t afford to go to school and pay for daycare. Without online classes, these Nevadans simply cannot fully benefit from higher education.

Consequently, online classes were here to stay, and faculty members began looking for ways to make them as equivalent to traditional classes as possible. It didn’t take long to discover that mastering technology was only half the battle. How faculty members teach and how students learn are very different in the virtual environment. Both parties needed to relearn how to teach and learn. This is the trajectory that administration and the regents should have fostered, but this didn’t happen because the higher-ed funding formula wasn’t designed to reward improved success, just to get more students into classes.

In 2013 the Legislature passed a new, performance-based funding formula in which money flows only if students persist semester to semester and graduate. This required the Nevada System of Higher Education to recalibrate resources dedicated to services and practices that facilitate student success. The state paid a consultant $90,000 for advice. One of the recommendations was to adopt MOOCs, which were created by California tech companies to shake up higher ed. The consultant encouraged the System of Higher Education to replace core online classes taught by faculty members with online courses that would enroll thousands of students who were unable to enroll in a core class at a regular campus. These new massive online courses consisted of video lectures, computer-graded quizzes, and peer-reviewed discussion questions and papers.

The lectures in these core 100-level classes were presented by “star” faculty members from elite universities to create perfect, online classes. They were filmed in advance. There was no answering of student questions, no working with struggling students. Assignments were canned.

Students largely rejected the MOOC approach in California, finding it a poor, hollow substitute for traditional in-classroom teaching or even online courses taught interactively and directly supervised by a campus faculty member. The $7 million experiment was seen as a cringe-worthy failure; it might have saved money up front, but it did not succeed in educating students.

Back in Nevada, the System of Higher Education paid $90,000 for a report that recommended adopting MOOCs to reduce higher-ed costs.

To avoid wasting the consultant’s whole report, Chancellor Dan Klaich created an eLearning task force to decide which other recommendations to implement as well as devise other solutions for improving online student success. The task force submitted its report last spring, but no action has been taken by the chancellor or the regents. Instead, we’ll be listening to one more presentation about how MOOCs will be the silver bullet that fixes the funding problem. Right — just eliminate teaching and things will be fine.

Is it too much to ask the stewards of our higher-education system to address real problems with real solutions?

Sondra Cosgrove is a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and has been an online educator since 2004.

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