By Doug Ward

In a discussion among faculty earlier this week, a conversation about online education quickly turned skeptical.

We were exploring the model of the Minerva Schools, which uses a combination of online and experiential learning with a small group of students. It aims to reduce the cost of college by using technology, rather than physical classrooms, and to create cohorts of students who live in and explore different international locations each year. Minerva’s first class of students started last fall.

One faculty member in our discussion at CTE said that her most memorable undergraduate experiences took place in hands-on labs or in field experiments where students explored the many facets of the natural universe. How is it possible to replicate that experience online? she asked.

smiley face drawn on snow-covered university seal outside Budig Hall at University of Kansas
Photo by Doug Ward

Another faculty member talked about the difficulty of having deep discussions online. Yes, students and instructors can share thoughts and debate gray areas on a virtual discussion board, but those discussions lack spontaneity. Even live discussions with webcams don’t provide the same interactions or visual cues as in-person discussions. They also lack the same verve of classroom interaction, he said.

Those doubts are understandable. They are also widely shared.

A report released earlier this month by Babson Survey Research Group and the Online Learning Consortium showed a tempering of enthusiasm for online undergraduate courses. Growth in online courses has slowed considerably from a few years ago, though it is still at 3.8 percent annually. The authors of the report write:

“While the number of students taking distance courses has grown by the millions over the past decade, it has not come without considerable concerns. Faculty acceptance has lagged, concerns about student retention linger, and leaders continue to worry that online courses require more faculty effort than face-to-face instruction.”

Babson’s survey of chief academic offers found that faculty acceptance of the “value and legitimacy of online education” declined over the last two years to 28 percent, nearly the same percentage as in 2003.

The report provides a central reason that faculty members have doubts about online courses: There is “no agreed upon measure of educational quality – either for face-to-face or for online education.”

We have no common, definitive way of comparing, so we go with our gut, and our gut tells us that in-person learning is better than online learning.

I understand faculty concerns about online courses. At the same time, I see great value in those courses and see a need to continue expanding them. I’ve been leading development of a mostly online master’s degree in Digital Content Strategy that will start this year. Online courses for undergraduates provide an important means for students to keep on track toward graduation, especially during the summer and intersession. We can also use online courses to reach out to students who stopped their education at some point, giving them the opportunity to complete their college education.

One reason online education raises such doubts at traditional universities, though, is that those universities fail to explain its role in undergraduate education. At one point, administrators pushed online courses because they saw them as a way to save faculty time and universities money. (They don’t, if done right.) Or they pursued them because everyone else was, and they didn’t want to get left behind.

Beyond that, though, they haven’t addressed some crucial questions: Are universities developing online courses for student convenience? For faculty convenience? Are they intended to help improve graduation rates? To provide new ways of learning? And if they expand their online offerings, how do those courses fit with on-campus instruction? Most important, are students learning what they need to learn in whatever format courses take?

Those are just a few of the challenging questions we have to consider. Those questions loom especially large at universities that have invested millions of dollars in a physical infrastructure, that have specialized in personal interaction and hands-on learning opportunities, and that have sold students on the idea of an on-campus “experience.”

Until faculty members see a strategy to online course development, until they buy in to the why behind online course offerings, and until they alleviate valid concerns about online courses’ ability to deliver deep, meaningful learning, they will continue to express skepticism. And rightfully so.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unlikelihood of competition and cultural forces pushing higher education to “unbundle” its degrees and services.

Jeff Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education provides yet another take on that notion. Young says that providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have pledged to democratize education, allowing anyone to become an educator and a learner. He describes platforms like Udemy, edX and MOOC.org collectively as the “sharing economy meets education.”

In one example, a 25-year-old entrepreneur with no teaching experience has made tens of thousands of dollars through his app-building course on Udemy. An Iowa State professor makes $2,500 a month from a collection of online courses he calls the Critical Thinker Academy, and aspires to work on that full time.

abstract image of ceiling of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
Doug Ward

As Young explains, there’s a growing audience for learning among motivated people who have degrees (or not) and want to keep learning but don’t want to pursue another degree. These people aren’t afraid to step outside the traditional realm of education.

“The bigger, more immediate threat to colleges is indirect,” Young writes. “These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth.”

There are no surprises here. This is just part of a much longer conversation on the role and value of MOOCs and the future of higher education. It is yet another sign of the need for colleges and universities to change, though, and another reminder of the opportunities for those institutions that can effect that change.

More unconventional learning

While we’re on the topic of unconventional approaches to learning, I’d recommend reading Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic article “What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show.”

Lahey profiles Michael Stevens, host of a high-energy YouTube education channel called Vsauce. Stevens takes on such quirky topics as “Is Cereal Soup?” and “What If the Earth Stopped Spinning?” and (shudder) “What Does Human Taste Like?” She writes:

Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning.
Stevens’s ability to connect with audiences – his 10-minute videos get millions of views each – goes beyond great titles, pun-filled presentations and sharp visuals, though. Lahey writes:

You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what those of us in higher education need to take away from the popularity of Vsauce, Udemy and other unconventional forms of education: We have to make information matter. We have to make learning matter. We have to make education matter. We have to help students see the connections among the topics we teach, and among the topics our colleagues teach.

That ability to connect – with students and among topics – is a central component of the future of education.

Generate! Blah-blah-blah. Repeat! Blah-blah-blah.

In a post last month, I wrote about Audrey Watters’s list of vapid academic jargon and her prediction that the blah-blah-blah would continue unabated in 2015.

Since then, I’ve run across a wonderful tool called the Jargon Generator, which was created by Andy Allan, a high school teacher in California who maintains a site called ScienceGeek.net.

Allan says he was inspired to create the Jargon Generator after reading new guidelines for AP Chemistry. The generator was modeled on a similar tool on Dack.com.

The Jargon Generator is a must-see amusement for anyone who has slogged through a poorly edited academic journal, suffered through a grant application, endured an administrative meeting or survived a speech by an educational consultant. Just push the “Generate jargon!” button and see such amazing empty phrases as these:

  • We will visualize school-based pedagogy across content areas.
  • We will aggregate shared differentiated lessons within professional learning communities.
  • We will cultivate shared concept maps across cognitive and affective domains.

For even more fun, try an active learning experiment and string together some of the sentences on your own:

We will discern bottom-up paradoxes with a laser-like focus, ultimately integrating synergistic technologies within the new paradigm. We fully expect that to agendize college and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities and operationalize diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

My only complaint with the Jargon Generator is that all the sentences it creates are in active voice. True jargon is dipped from a cesspool of passive:

Bottom-up paradoxes will be discerned with a laser-like focus, and the new paradigm will ultimately be integrated with synergistic technologies. College and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities are expected to be fully agendized upon the operationalization by diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

If that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, you’ve no doubt been reading too much of the Journal of Cooperative Paradigm Processes for 21st-Century Learners. You have my sympathy.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Will students one day piece together their own degrees by assembling courses a la carte from a variety of colleges and universities?

Derek Newton of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, says no. Writing in The Atlantic, Newton argues that technology won’t force the “unbundling” of degrees and programs in higher education the way it has the music industry and cable TV.

The American Enterprise Institute, among others, contends that technology indeed will force higher education to change its existing model of “bundled services” like degrees, dorms, food services, recreation centers and the whole idea of a “college experience.” Rising costs already force most families to choose colleges based on price, making institutions vulnerable to outside competitors that can find ways of reducing costs while still providing the desired services, according to this reasoning.

The music industry and cable television have long relied on a bundling model. Songs are bundled into albums, which can be sold at higher prices; programs are bundled into expensive cable packages. Apple, among others, forced music companies to allow consumers to buy individual songs, and services like Hulu have given viewers control over when and how they watch TV programs and movies.

block windows with abstract patterns in reflection
Doug Ward

Newton agrees that higher education has not kept up with technology. He says, though, that a widespread breakup of higher education’s courses and services simply won’t happen. That’s because students and parents look at higher education in an entirely different way than they look at media, he says. “They shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

Newton offers a good counterargument to the idea of unbundling. What he overlooks, though, is that once students begin their education, they do indeed shop for professors. Word of mouth and sites like Rate My Professor point students toward some classes and instructors and away from others. Similarly, many students take online classes at other colleges and universities to save money or to avoid in-person classes they see as onerous. (University administrators refer to this as “leakage.”)

Students make choices about higher education based on the reputation of individual programs within a university, as well as a university’s overall reputation. They haven’t shown interest in abandoning college or university identity for a generic major, though, as in patching together a degree on their own from dozens of individual classes at dozens of universities.

Colleges and universities are indeed vulnerable, though, if they don’t prove their worth to students and parents. That must start by putting a greater emphasis on student learning and helping students see the value of courses, programs and degrees, and then move more quickly into a variety of areas:

  • Course options that break away from the three-hour, in-your-seat lecture.
  • An emphasis on critical thinking and adaptation of ideas instead of memorized facts.
  • Clear explanations about why individual courses and topics matter and how they fit into a degree.
  • Incentives for and recognition of innovative teaching.
  • Approaches in which universities unbundle – yes, unbundle – their own degrees and then rebundle them into smaller packages like certificates that recognize achievements in learning but that don’t require dozens or hundreds of hours of course time.

That’s just a start. Newton is right that a great unbundling is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Critics are right, too, in that universities must change – soon.

Steps in the right direction

Diana Stepner of the education services company Pearson has declared 2015 “the year of the learner,” arguing that “the future of education will be created by learners themselves.”

That’s great news if we can help make it happen. Writing in Wired magazine, Stepner describes a world in which engaged students take an active role in their learning, help shape educational programs, and delve into learning with gusto.

I’m not buying into the “year of the learner” hype, but Stepner makes good points about the future of education. I see no signs that we are on the cusp of a dramatic, immediate change, but education is – and must continue – taking incremental steps to make education more learner-centered. (See above.)

Briefly …

An analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education finds that enrollment of international students has soared at public colleges and universities in the U.S. but that those students are not taking spots that would have gone to in-state students. …. Writing in Educause, Holly E. Morris and Greg Warman offer ideas on how higher education might use design thinking. … Writing in Good magazine, Rosie Spinks says that “libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books.”


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.