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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Online Teaching, Part 3: Can it be done?

Probably not.

Sorry to be so grumpy and negative this morning, I spent an hour on the phone late (at least to my way of thinking) last night trying to work something out with a colleague and I'm more than a little tired. But my feelings about the limits to the possibilities for using online teaching methods to help grad and law programs  are not just the result of fatigue. I think there are some real problems of logistics and imagination. (For evidence that I am not entirely alone, you might want to look at this recent article on roadblocks to the use of online materials in higher ed generally.)

But let's recap to figure out where the problems really are. It seems to me that there are three good uses for online education in the context of law or grad programs.

1. For working or mini-conference groups, who might use online resources to allow the exchange of ideas over the course of a year or two while the project or conference is coming together.

2. To create ongoing, narrowly focused research seminars for graduate students in all stages of their careers. This would allow students in dissertation programs who are off campus doing writing and research to keep connected to their scholarly community back home, it would help professionalize students starting a PhD program, it might be a fruitful way to bring law students (or people from other disciplines) who are interested in interdisciplinary study into contact with other students at their university.

3. To help create programs that cross not just disciplinary boundaries, but also institutional boundaries, so that students enrolled at one university could work on a consistent basis with students and scholars at other universities in the US or elsewhere who were doing related work. In a sense, this is possibility two (above) writ large and might be a way to create working cohorts in times of declining enrollments or provide interdisciplinary study for law students, say, who were in programs that were not associated with graduate schools.

Of the list, I think the second is the most important and the third is the most interesting. While I think the first is interesting and could be productive I'm not sure I think it's as crucial.

Perhaps it won't come as a suprise that I think that of the three, the first is the most possible.

Why? Because many working groups and mini-conference programs are funded on grants or financed through some sort of soft, specifically allocated funding. As such, they are able to afford the sort of software that would make online exchanges possible, and there is usually the sort of institutional support (in terms of thinking that the conference or working group's activity are noteworthy and good) that usually means, in my experience, that people will want to make the experiment and put the effort in. In fact, the advantage of using online resources as part of a mini conference or working group project is that it's cheaper than bringing everyone to a particular spot several times, so online materials could make it cheaper and easier to bring people together to work on projects of this sort.

In contrast, the other two ideas are harder to finance. Let's talk about the second proposal (the cradle to grave seminar) first. There are several problems, three in particular stand out:

1. There is little or no money, at least at many institutions, for grad seminars that are not directly related to teaching graduate students required material. So it might be difficult to get even the fairly nominal funding necessary for the extra software to run a dedicated online seminar. And while one could probably scrap together a workable alternative using skype, it would not be as good and there would still be some costs that someone would have to absorb. Who is that someone? Do we make the grad students pay extra? Do we expect the faculty member(s) leading the program to absorb the cost?

2. In addition, seminars like that become a scheduling and cost accounting nightmare. Are they an overload that has to be paid for with extra salary (recall that I am teaching my online webinar this year as an overload, using a small internal grant, and it does pay me a modest amount extra to cover the class). Or is it something that faculty should do extra, i.e., for free, because we are professionals?

3. One good argument for a program like this (other than the basic argument that it is good to have grad students work with a mix of other students with similar interests who are at different stages of their careers) is that it is a way to help create interdisciplinary communities. This could be a way to bring, for example, students at a particular institution who are studying history, anthropology, sociology, political science, and law together to explore the things that connect their projects and disciplines. Law students who want that sort of enrichment would benefit without having to enroll in  a joint degree program, students in PhD programs could use this to learn about legal methods and assumptions without having to take out loans to go to law school. 

But some institutions (I'm not sure how many) are using budgeting processes that look at how many students (or credit hours) particular faculty members, or departments, or college are teaching. How do you count a cross disciplinary seminar with students from around a university in such a system? Who gets the credit for those students? Which department, which college, which faculty member?

All those problems are magnified the moment we start even thinking about trying to create cross institutions programs. Where do the students in such a program "belong" (to put it more crudely, who owns them and gets to claim them)? Do they belong to the school that enrolls them? Do they belong to the school that employs the faculty member who runs the online seminar? If we were five year olds, presumably the answer to questions like that would be that we should figure out a way to share.

And the idea of figuring out ways of sharing has a lot of appeal, at least in theory. Sharing is good, right? And even if there are some out there who don't think it is good, perhaps we can all agree that in a time of some austerity in most academic institutions, sharing resources might be a way to keep programs, and the faculty associated with them, occupied and productive even if budgetary constraints mean fewer students can be admitted to them. Sharing might even mean that programs could be expanded, precisely because the very modest costs could be shared between several institutions.

But we aren't in kindergarten and I'm not sure we can share. Our current systems make sharing or even talking about sharing difficult if not impossible (just think about some possible issues: does your law school allow a student to take courses for credit outside the law school at your own institution? does it allow students to take courses for credit outside your university? if so, how many? what sorts of reviews are done to make sure the course lives up to your standards? who gets the tuition payments for that course?).  In my experience, it's hard enough to get programs in different programs in the same college or university to work together, and I know of few cross-institutional programs (as always, if anyone can think of some, feel free to drop a note or a link in the comments).

More to the point, our working assumptions and the bases of our professional reputations also stand in the way. Our students, our disciplines, our programs, and our institutions define us and they place us in various pecking orders that I think are hard to work around.  Sure, some people can jump from institution to institution and move up or down those ladders in the process. I've done it myself. But while some individuals may be able to shift around within the structures of our expectations, the logic of that process of individual movement keeps the basic structures and hierarchies in place and largely depends on them. And just as we depend on those structures and the hierarchies they create to get our sense of our place in the universe of higher education, our administrations depend on it as well. That's how they evaluate us, that's how they sell us to prospective students or donors.    

Under those circumstances, I'm not sure how willing we are to try to create seminars that cross institutional boundaries, even if it were financially possible.  And that strikes me as a shame.


Posted by Elizabeth Dale on November 16, 2010 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


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I have taught tax and estate planning to master's degree students in an entirely online format, and it can be done, if one fits the course format to the medium.

My students were primarily non-traditional students, mostly with careers in kindred fields who were interested in career advancement, or at military bases where an in person format was impracticable.

Like any other class, there were assigned readings and assignments to be completed out of class that were turned in (this was done via e-mail attachment). My "lectures" were done via blog posts, sometimes with attachments, although some of my colleagues would post "youtube" type webcam videos of themselves or use power point presentations. I chose to have no closed book exams in my class, in part for practical reasons, and in part because that doesn't reflect the reality of transactional practice in any case.

Class "discussions" were done online more or less the way comments to blog posts are done. I would open the discussion with a topic, students would comment asynchonously over the course of a week, and I would periodically check in on the discussion and add comments of my own. Every student in a class was told that there was a clear expectation of some participation in the discussion and those who failed to participate at all, or did not contribute meaningfully or seriously to the discussion received a nominal reduction in their grade for the class. Often the quality of the discussion was better than what you would see in a physical classroom setting.

Since class sessions were not at any given point in time, scheduling wasn't a problem at all. Each professor in the program set aside some varied times to be available for "office hours" via phone (varied since students were in different time zones) and committed to responding to e-mail inquiries from students. This was no big deal.

Online access to the class website was password protected to prevent freeloading by non-participants in the class who had not paid tuition.

I've also taught in continuing legal education classes on a variety of subjects by teleconference (which from a technical perspective is really no different than any other third party mediated conference call), and in continuing legal education classes with some students participating via webcast with telephone and/or e-mail input, although this generally requires a staff person on duty to manage the flow of information as well as a presenter. But, this also is not rocket science. The Colorado Bar Association, for example, does it routinely, and the support roles don't take any great skill once the system has been set up and the support person has done the job with mentoring once or twice. It is a lot like being a guest on a talk radio show (which I've also done).

There are precedents for institutions allowing students to take some of their classes at neighboring schools, that wouldn't necessarily be any different in principle when not adjacent. Amhert, Smith and a few other neighboring colleges do it, for example. This is the basic concept behind both Oxford University and Cambridge University, each of which is really a consortium of affiliated colleges, rather than a single academic institution. My alma mater, Oberlin College, had an arrangement with Hope College, to offer students an opportunity to participate in a program in Philadelphia. Most colleges permit students to take summer classes at another institution and transfer the credit back to their home institution.

Administratively, it probably would be easiest, at first, to localize the class at one institution, with unaffiliated professors compensated by that institution as visiting lecturers and that institution receiving the tuition money for however many credit hours were involved, and students receiving credit from that institution and then getting transfer credit at their home institution for the class.

This isn't the smoothest way to do it, of course, and is complicated in cases where graduate students need tuition waivers as a form of financial aid to continue their studies. Another option would be to use that same structure, but to have as a side agreement a tuition waiver reciprocity agreement and to put a quota on the number of non-institutional tuition waived students that would be served by any one participating institution in any given academic year, to prevent one institution from unduly subsidizing others without getting benefit in exchange.

Eventually, a cross-listing agreement, similar to a code sharing arrangement with airlines, could be worked out, but that wouldn't be necessary until the concept was off the ground and had proven its worth.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 17, 2010 3:22:43 PM

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