Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It

Online learning in its current iterations will fail.

The failure of online education programs is not logistical, nor political, nor economic: it’s cultural, rooted in our perspectives and biases about how learning happens and how the internet works (these things too often seen in opposition). For learning to change drastically — a trajectory suggested but not realized by MOOCs — teaching must change drastically. And in order for that to happen, we must conceive of the activity of teaching, as an occupation and preoccupation, in entirely new and unexpected ways. We must unseat ourselves, unnerve ourselves. Online learning is uncomfortable, and so educators must become uncomfortable in their positions as teachers and pedagogues. And the administration of online programs must follow suit.

Early failures in online education have led us to a place where many believe we know exactly what we’re doing; but what we’ve done, more than anything, is close down space for possibility, evolution, and experimentation. We’ve created happy little caskets inside which learning fits too neatly and tidily (like forums, learning management systems, and web conferencing platforms). We’ve timed learning down to the second, developed draconian quality assurance measures, built analytics to track every bit of minutiae, and we’ve championed the stalest, most banal forms of interaction — interaction buried beneath rubrics and quantitative assessment — interaction that looks the same every time in every course with every new set of students.

Online learning programs fail because they’ve been told, and they believe, they must operate within the same paradigm of learning and teaching that on-ground programs obey. This is a falsehood, a misconception, and at times a deception. More and different types of learning and teaching are available in the digital environment. We must convince ourselves that we don’t yet understand digital education so we may open the doors more broadly to play and creativity. At the expense of regimentation and bureaucracy.

We Are All the University of Phoenix

Most online programs believe they’re not — couldn’t possibly be, would never even border upon being — the University of Phoenix. We have serious problems with the business model of University of Phoenix, particularly their marketing practices, insidious reliance on contingent labor, and strict standardization of courses and curricula. However, it’s folly for any school to imagine they could avoid becoming University of Phoenix just by having the intention not to.

There are very smart folk working for University of Phoenix, some good teachers, and a lot of really great students. University of Phoenix has been in the business of online learning since 1976. They have a lot of intellectual and economic capital. It’s just being aimed in some very bad directions. The New York Times reports that “students and some of its own former administrators say the relentless pressure for higher profits, at a university that gets more federal student financial aid than any other, has eroded academic quality.” Most new online programs are started with less expertise, less intellectual and economic capital, and usually steer themselves in the exact same directions without realizing it. If we don’t change course, then every online program is a runaway train on its way toward becoming the University of Phoenix.

It’s seductive: the notion that we could draw more students and contribute to our institution’s bottom line by simply moving our existing curriculum, classes, and faculty online lock, stock, and barrel. But imagine the most lively on-ground classroom with all its various sights, sounds, and smells, then compare that to the horribly restrictive interface of any learning management system. We are not arguing that nothing happy or good can happen within the LMS. Nor are we saying we can’t create lively opportunities for learning online. But the online environment is fundamentally different and requires fundamentally different input to attain similar output. Online learning requires a meticulous attention to the container and the permeability of that container. We have to carefully build our classroom and educational space online before we start populating it, lest text, hierarchical menus, and pop-up windows be confused with interactivity and community.

We shouldn’t set off on a cruise, and build the ship as we go. Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all. Imagine this scenario: a business student shares a table at the campus coffee shop with an English major. A conversation kicks off with the inevitable, “What’s your major?” When and where does this conversation happen in online programs? How can we facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogues that bring a campus to life? What spaces can we build online that aren’t quantified, tracked, scored, graded, assessed, and accredited? How can we use open source tools and social media to build the hallways between our online classes? Many individual educators have begun to do this work, but we need a larger discussion about the future of online education that privileges these spaces as central and indispensable to learning.

What we are doing right now is merely expanding our online course offerings so students can get degrees online. Enrollment in online courses at post-secondary institutions grew from 9.6% in 2002 to 29.3% of total enrollment in 2009, or 5 and a half million students taking online courses (“The Student Cyborg”). By 2014, this number is expected to increase to 18,650,000. As of February 2013, 1.7 million students had registered for at least one Coursera course (Gutierrez  2013). What we have is a series of online classes with no real infrastructure to support the work students do on college campuses outside and between those classes. Online programs have the bureaucratic trappings of formal education without the rich ecosystems. Meanwhile, learning communities thrive online extra-institutionally, supported by the 1500+ blog entries, 98,000 tweets, and 695,000 Facebook status updates posted every 60 seconds (Gizmodo  2011).

Five Ways to Build Ethical Online Programs

Truly successful online programs pay attention to what’s already happening in digital culture. They inspect and then makes use of blogs, social media, and the permeability and collaborative organization that takes place there. Up to now, online learning has taken little notice of the web upon which it’s suspended.

We’ve both watched the failures of online learning firsthand. Between the two of us, we’ve taught dozens of online classes at every level of higher education and have led the development of online programs. Yet, neither of us had fully realized our ethics online until we went rogue and developed our own online course extra-institutionally. MOOC MOOC, our meta-MOOC about MOOCs, changed our perspectives and we realized something profoundly good could happen online.

Online learning has been a strange elephant in the room of far too many conversations we’ve been in over the last decade, but the need to examine online learning has, with the advent of MOOCs, become all the more pressing. Ripe with potential, a great deal may be revealed, repurposed, and renewed to create innovative learning experiences online. Lots of heavy-lifting needs to happen at the level of development to build the necessary infrastructure. However, the most important work to be done is a series of paradigm shifts. We must:

1. Stop conflating on-ground and online learning models, which require different pedagogies, administration, economies, curricula, and communities.
The key failure of online learning has been its attempt to duplicate, replicate, or simply dump into an LMS the content and strategies of on-ground learning. We need to recognize that online learning uses a different platform, builds community in different ways, demands different pedagogies, has a different economy, functions at different scales, and requires different curricular choices than does on-ground education. Even where the same goal is desired, very different methods must be used to reach that goal.

Mark Sample reminds us in his essay, “Intrusive Scaffolding, Obstructed Learning (and MOOCs),” that “Unless online teaching — and classroom teaching as well — begins to first, unscaffold learning problems and second, rediscover embodied pedagogy, we will obstruct learning rather than foster it. We will push students away from authentic learning experiences rather than draw them toward such experiences.” Because so many have been afraid that learning would not happen in online courses, we’ve focused on the machinations of technology to (en)force that learning. But in doing so, we’ve missed an opportunity to create unique learning experiences.

The machinations, which Sample refers to as “scaffolding”, have led to further obscenities, including the “learning object” and the canned and endlessly duplicated course. The former is an attempt to reduce learning to atomic building blocks — discussion topics, quizzes, flash-based interactive modules — swapped out like trading cards no matter the course or students. The latter is the all too common practice of teaching from a single “master” course, reused semester after semester by various faculty without substantive changes to the content.

Online learning has been so involved with the facility of the technology that it has overlooked the complication of good pedagogy.

2. Rely more on pedagogues and less on tech.
The invention of online learning and digital pedagogies should be driven by educators, not industry. The AAUP proclaimed in their “Statement on Online and Distance Education”: “Faculty expertise and experience are indispensable for selecting appropriate technologies for distance education.” That was written in 1999, and yet the norm is still for technological decisions to be made at the administrative level, for online classes to be taught almost exclusively by contingent faculty, and for online curricula to be designed by faculty with little-to-no expertise in digital pedagogy. We need to work to help technological decision-makers at institutions of education understand that technology is a pedagogical decision — that the choices made around technology don’t drive pedagogy but are driven by careful decisions and thinking about teaching and learning.

Supporting innovative digital pedagogies means investing in robust inter- and intra-institutional collaborations, and it means hiring and creating a culture for the development of digital pedagogues. Institutions shouldn’t outsource online learning to Coursera, Pearson, or the like, as a substitute for developing internal expertise in and discussion about online learning. What we need is to gather together experts in digital pedagogy willing to turn their attention toward solving the problem of online learning, toward innovating new methodologies, and toward rebuilding what we value most about education in digital space. And, if we are going to successfully automate any bit of the work of teaching and learning, we must make our machine relationships altogether more intimate. Our algorithms are not sufficiently complex to capture the dynamic, sometimes poetic, nature of learning.

3. Stop worrying whether online learning will usurp traditional education. 
More than one college instructor has worried over predation by online learning. Many teachers are concerned online courses, especially massive ones, will automate their jobs, making them and their very human teaching methods obsolete. Additionally, teachers fear that MOOCs, led by celebrity instructors, will further reduce attendance in their on-ground and even hybrid classrooms, and they worry they’re being made to compete with digital pedagogies they have no training and/or interest in.

However, online classes have not historically poached students from on-ground classes. In fact, the online student is generally a different type of student altogether than she who takes a class on campus. According to the report from Joseph Cavanaugh, “Are Online Courses Cannibalizing Students from Existing Courses”: “Online students are more likely to be female and older and are less likely to live on campus. They live significantly further from campus and are more likely to be part-time students who often take only online courses.” These are students we’re not likely to see in classrooms anyway. And online learning opportunities bring them into our virtual classrooms. This expands the reach of higher education, and offers more learners more opportunities. For this reason, we need to stop worrying about whether online learning will cannibalize on-ground learning, and work harder to offer something unique for audiences that might not otherwise have access to education.

4. Let go of fears and take more risks.
Online learning initiatives require courage. This is not a mere aphorism, or platitude. Courageous digital pedagogy, course design, and online program administration doesn’t worry itself into corners, avoiding confrontation with tough questions about political economies, contingency, FERPA, plagiarism, and intellectual property. It tackles these subjects bravely, willing to assume solutions instead of handicaps. We need to develop hybrid models with robust online communities and more experimental approaches to LMS-based classes. Massive courses should be massively taught (and not by fleets of contingent or volunteer laborers). And we need to rethink what we mean by “institutionally supported” technologies and platforms to include a much broader and rapidly changing landscape of digital tools. We cannot afford to get hung-up on arguments relevant (or barely relevant) to the on-ground classroom simply because those arguments are familiar.

To support innovative pedagogies, we must participate in and help spur more robust faculty development around online learning. This does not look like a training seminar in the current technologies used to deliver online courses. Rather than training, we need to include faculty in, as Cathy Davidson says in Now You See It, “inquiry-based problem solving wherein solutions are not known in advance.” We need to create a culture around online learning that incites new ideas, elicits fiery discussion, and excites teachers about the possibilities inherent in digital pedagogy. We should not assume we know how online learning works, but rather set out for new territory in these discussions.

5. Hold massive “town meetings” to develop broader strategies around online learning, because so far this conversation isn’t big or inclusive enough. 
Most online programs are designed for administrators and accreditors and not for students. We need to bring students more fully into this discussion, building a robust network of participant pedagogues reshaping what, when, and how we learn online. We need to create more open and transparent discussions about rights and principles and not deeper and more oppressive quality assurance measures. We must work to create institution-wide conversations about the present and future of online learning, and must also bridge conversations across institutions and disciplines.

There is no one in education untouched by online learning. We need everyone in the room, thinking and taking action across the artificial divides between K-12, higher ed., computers and writing, digital humanities, STEM, non-profit, for-profit, open education, and edtech. Reimagining education for the digital age begins with a single honest exchange, a line of code, a recognition, a declaration, a demand, an occupation.

The Cataclysm of Online Learning

As Cathy Davidson rightly notes, “The fourth great age — cataclysmic, paradigm-changing age — in human history is now, with the internet … Anyone can think a thought, publish a thought, and it’s out there to the world.” Traditional institutions of higher education were founded on a proliferation of books, on the idea that knowledge was available through libraries and colleges if we could find the road to access. Today, the road to access doesn’t necessarily detour through the university.

But universities, and more importantly educators, still have a role to play in the production and circulation of information, in the cultivation of a digital citizenry. To fulfill that role — indeed, in order to see it with any clarity at all — we must begin to think differently about online learning. It’s not what we’ve thought it was, and it has never been what we hoped it would be. Education as a whole needs some reassembling; but digital education — borne thus far from a mimicry of on-ground learning — needs immediate reexamination. Online learning is yet in its impressionable infancy, and can be molded, grown, and led into a meaningful maturity.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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