THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 7, Issue 40 – July 29, 2013
Formula for Happiness
Reading the London Sun is a guilty pleasure I picked up when I was on my first Sabbatical. It’s a tabloid in the way only the British can do ‘em—the New York City and Boston tabloids are pale imitations—with a little news, lots of gossip and scandal, and lots of sports.
This week there were two major items of interest, one of which was the birth of the royal baby. On July 23 for just one day, the newspaper changed its name from the SUN to the SON. Ah, those witty Brits.
The other item was a research report that showed up on July 27 that somehow escaped making the New York Times. Dr. Todd Kashdan, an associate professor at George Mason University, is a psychologist who does research on happiness and on why some people suffer. He is reported to have discovered the formula for happiness. In case you’re interested, the formula is:
Feeling Good = 16 M + C + 2L + 5T + 2N + 33 B
Where M = living in the moment, C = being curious, L = doing something you love, T = thinking of others, N = nurturing relationships, and B = taking care of your body. Kasdan said: “There is no single secret to feeling good, but when these six ingredients are carefully attended to, in the right doses, you will be on target for a happy life.”
Why did this only show up in the British press? Probably because there’s too much math for an American newspaper.
Driving the Train
Keith Hopper sent an interesting article (thanks, Keith!) entitled “Who is Driving the Online Locomotive” from the Chronicle around this past week. You can see a copy of the article here. Since I like trains and have always wanted to drive a locomotive, even an online one, I was a little disappointed to find out that the article was yet another in a long line of arguments against online courses and instruction. Oh well, I’ll have to find my virtual locomotive elsewhere.
As long as I read the article, I thought I’d make a few comments about it. The article was authored by a Georgia local, namely Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. Jenkins’ main point is that faculty at community colleges (and no doubt, all colleges) are being hectored into getting aboard the online education locomotive, with the warning that the locomotive will run them over if they don’t get aboard. And he’s not happy about that. Jenkins wants to know: who is it who’s really driving this online locomotive? He writes: “I think that’s a question well worth asking, and the answer ought to inform our response as faculty members.”
Maybe it’s just me, but why should we care? It’s certainly worth asking if a locomotive is actually on the track and if it’s bearing down on us. If it is, it’s even more important to try to figure out how to jump out of the way. I fail to see, however, why the answer to these two questions depends on who’s warning us that a locomotive is coming. I assume Jenkins’ point is that we should consider the source of the warning, but if the warning comes from someone we like, that doesn’t make it any more true, and if it comes from someone we hate, that doesn’t make it false. Regardless, we need to look at the evidence, see if the locomotive is actually on the track and is coming our way, and decide what’s best to do about it.
Jenkins then looks at the possible drivers of the locomotive, starting with students. He correctly notes that 31% of post-secondary students are taking at least one online course, and says that the rate of growth of online courses has plateaued. He notes that a survey conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University indicates that community college students prefer to take courses, especially difficult ones, face-to-face (f2f).
Let’s examine these points. According to the report Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (available here) from the Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Commission, the most current number (Fall 2011) of students taking at least one online course is 6,714,792, an increase of 9.3% from Fall 2010. What did overall college enrollment do? It declined by 0.1%. So, without the online enrollment gain, there would have been a serious drop in overall enrollments.
Online enrollment is now 32.0% of total enrollment, up from 29.2% the year before. Here’s the data:
2002: 9.6% 2003: 11.7% 2004: 13.5% 2005: 18.2% 2006: 19.6% 2007: 21.6%
2008: 24.1% 2009: 27.3% 2010: 29.2% 2011: 32.0%
Has the growth rate (9.3%) leveled off? Of course it has—as the percentage of students taking online classes rises, the rate of growth inevitably falls, since we’re talking about bigger and bigger numbers. That’s why it’s harder for the University of Georgia to get a 15% spike in enrollment than it is for some tiny college with 500 students to do it. Has the fraction of overall enrollment that is online (32.0%) leveled off? No—as the numbers above show, if anything, the slope has increased a little.
What about that survey that says students prefer face-to-face courses? I’ll discuss the survey in more detail in the next section below, but I would have been surprised if this weren’t the case. Almost all students are brought up in an environment of face-to-face courses—that’s what they’re used to, so it would be astounding if they didn’t say they prefer it. However, it’s not about what the student prefers, it’s about what they need. If students overwhelmingly prefer f2f courses, why are so many of them taking online courses? The answer is obvious (and given in the survey)—they need the flexibility provided by the online courses because of their jobs, families, and lives. Jenkins dismisses the 6.7M online students—32% of overall enrollment—thusly:
So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up…
What number or fraction of students do you suppose would have been necessary for Jenkins to take them seriously?
Jenkins then goes on to cite a study regarding faculty views: a 2009 report by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities stating that only 36% of faculty have any experience developing or teaching an online course. Jenkins then writes: “Moreover, according to The Chronicle’s report, the study also found that professors’ general attitude toward online courses remains unfavorable—even among those who teach online: “70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.”
Perhaps it’s not odd that Jenkins doesn’t mention the name of the report—it’s called Online Learning as a Strategic Asset. Volume I is “A Resource for Campus Leaders” and Volume II is “The Paradox of Faculty Voice: Views and Experiences with Online Learning”. You can find the report here. The actual numbers in Volume II are instructive and don’t quite bear out what Jenkins says about faculty who taught online—a small majority (52.0%) find online courses to be the same or superior to f2f:
Have you taught on online course?
. Yes No
Inferior to f2f 16.7% 40.8%
Somewhat inferior to f2f 31.3% 41.3%
The same as f2f 37.2% 15.2%
Somewhat superior to f2f 12.4% 2.2%
Superior to f2f 2.4% 0.5%
The report’s executive summary states: “Faculty with experience developing or teaching online courses have a much more positive view towards online instruction than those without such experience. Faculty with no online experience remain relatively negative about online learning outcomes.” It goes on to say “The survey results show that, even with their reservations about online learning, a majority [56%] of faculty members have recommended online courses to students, a rate that jumps to well over 80 percent among faculty with experience developing or teaching an online course.”
Jenkins then does a little sleight of hand when discussing employers. He writes: “Another recent survey conducted for The Chronicle found that employers have a favorable impression of all types of colleges and universities—except for online institutions.” Note the switch from online courses to online institutions. The survey is actually not about online learning at all, but rather, about complaints businesses have about bachelors-level graduates in general. When asked to rank university desirability (who they’d like to hire the graduates of) between 1 (a lot less) and 5 (a lot more), the online institutions got an aggregate average rating of 2.87, with everyone else getting between 3.41 and 3.87. What is the definition of an online institution? The survey doesn’t say, and “for profit” is another category. So, I’m not even sure who the survey is talking about here.
Jenkins finally gets to his real point when he notes that the people who like online education are those evil administrators who are in it for the money. He writes: “Online courses enable colleges to enroll students and “deliver content” inexpensively, since they don’t require classrooms, parking spaces, restrooms, or, in some cases, even faculty offices. I’ve heard people argue that, done well, online courses can cost just as much as the face-to-face variety. That may be true, but I dare say that at most two-year colleges, they are offered as cheaply as possible, and that is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, for their existence.”
Now, it’s certainly true that online courses don’t require as much in the way of classrooms and parking spaces. It’s hardly zero though, as our own campus attests: the fraction of online courses has shot up dramatically, but parking is still a problem, since most students take and most faculty teach a mixture of online and f2f courses. Even if you’re teaching only some classes online, you still need an office and a parking space. While less space is needed for classrooms, new space is needed to house the online technology (new data center spaces are going into Buildings I-1, N, and Q as we speak, not to mention new technology classrooms). And, as the guy from whose budget much of this stuff comes, I can assure you that this technology costs serious money. Students don’t pay less for online courses at SPSU—they pay more, to cover the costs of the technological support.
Finally, Jenkins blames the politicians, who only care about the cost. He quotes Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, as predicting: “more than 80 percent of professional degree programs [sic] … will be earned online.” Why? Because “rising tuition, declining government subsidies, stagnant endowments, and increased competition are challenging higher education like never before.” Jenkins goes on to say: “But when our primary objective becomes making degrees as cheap as possible, rather than providing the best education possible, we’re missing the mark as educators and doing no good for the future of our students or our nation.” I don’t share governor Bush’s view that 80% of professional degree programs will go online, but there’s no denying that a significant fraction will. There’s also no denying that government support for higher education is down, and student loan debt is up. There’s a real push to make higher education less expensive. Shifting to online is not a panacea though—quality education is expensive in any format.
Something Jenkins doesn’t mention is that the majority of academic leaders (69.1% according to the Sloan report) believe that online instruction is critical to their long-term strategy. An even larger majority (77%) say that the learning outcomes in online education are the same or superior to those in face-to-face. However, only 30.2% of chief academic officers think their faculty buy into the value and legitimacy of online education. This is a seriously big disconnect in a world where 32% of overall enrollment is online.
So why do so many academic leaders believe in online education? One possibility is that we’re all venal idiots who don’t care about academic quality. Jenkins indeed makes that claim. An alternative possibility is that maybe, just maybe, we recognize that we can’t write off a 32% (and rising) portion of our overall enrollment, and we can’t write off the adult and military students for whom online is the only viable option. Maybe, just maybe, these administrators think that the majority of faculty who actually taught online know something that their colleagues who haven’t don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, these administrators are aware of the innovative ways some online faculty are meeting course outcomes. Maybe, just maybe, these administrators are aware that the quality of online instruction is improving each year because more faculty are becoming aware that a quality online course involves far more than making their lecture notes available online. And maybe, just maybe, these evil administrators are concerned about the ongoing viability of their universities and their ability to maintain their faculty’s jobs in a rapidly changing higher education environment.
CCRC Survey of Student Attitudes to Online Courses
The CCRC study (saying students prefer face-to-face instruction) is titled Choosing Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Community College Student Voices (available here). The author, Shanna Smith Jaggers, looked at why students take courses online by interviewing 46 students at 2 community colleges. Loyal readers will recall the CCRC (and Shanna Smith Jaggers) coming up in a previous issue of the BLAB, where I complimented their research methods and their reasonable conclusions. Strangely, this study, with its small sample size, was devoid of any numbers in the results—in fact, the only number given was that 40% of students said they’d rather not take math online. Other than some incomplete demographics about their sample, everything else consisted of quotes and summaries.
So, according to the study, why did students like online classes? “When asked why they chose to take online courses, almost all respondents explained that they had busy lives with multiple responsibilities and that the flexibility of online learning helped them better balance their schedule… Over 80 percent of the sample also reported working. Interviewers did not specifically probe respondents about the nature of their employment, but as they discussed their reasons for choosing online coursework, more than half of those who were employed explained that they worked full time or longer each week. An additional 11 percent volunteered that they worked overnight shifts, and 8 percent mentioned that they had unpredictable schedules, with work shifts that varied from week to week. Several respondents who worked long or variable hours explained that without the option of online course taking, they would enroll in fewer courses each semester.”
Other reasons cited for liking online courses included reducing the number of times they needed to travel to campus, the comfort of working at home, that they were a more efficient use of their time, that they learned more effectively that way, and that (for older students) it helped them not feel that they were the “oldest thing in the class”.
Students preferring face-to-face instruction did so because they wanted to maintain a connection to the campus and their peers and because of the “stronger student-instructor connection inherent in face-to-face courses.” Almost all students noted:
“the nature of the student–instructor interaction was more “distant,” less “personal,” less “immediate,” less “detailed,” or less “solid” online. In particular, they missed the direct instruction that they received in face-to-face courses, and many alluded to the notion that without that component, they felt as though they were “teaching themselves.”
Courses that students wouldn’t like to take online included foreign languages and public speaking (since there was no opportunity for spoken practice), laboratory science (I don’t want to have a chemistry lab going on in my kitchen), and math (too difficult). Overall, students in the study didn’t feel that they learned the material as well online, primarily due to reduced teacher explanation and interaction.
The author concluded that improvements in online courses need to be made, specifically incorporating online interactive technology that students find compelling. The author then referenced a publication discussing such compelling interactive technology (see below). She concluded that foreign language and public speaking should only be taught f2f or hybrid until better interactive technology is developed for them. As for math: “In terms of mathematics, instructional software (which was incorporated into most of these online courses) may eventually be equally or more helpful than a teacher’s direct instruction and real-time responses, but it seems that time has not yet come.”
The presentation Jaggers referred to is called Enhancing the Online Experience through Interactive Technologies: An Empirical Analysis of Technology Usage in Community College (available here). The analysis looked at 23 instructors, describing what technological tools were being used online and how they were being used. Strangely, only 65% archived their course presentations in some way (for example, Wimba, podcasts, PowerPoint), only 30% linked to outside resources on the web (videos, papers), and only 30% used subject-specific instructional software (MyMathLab, Mastering Chemistry). Reasonably enough, the authors noted: “Online instructors showed significant variability in their ability to purposefully integrate interactive technologies in service of pedagogical goals.”
What did students respond well to? Some fairly obvious things that most SPSU faculty who have gone through TADL are well aware of:
- Students reported more positive experiences in online courses that diversified instructional activities through the integration of various technologies.
- Audio and video recordings, chat sessions, and monitored instructional software were cited by students and instructors as ways to establish active instructor presence
- Students looked for instructors’ commitment to teaching as evidenced by sustained communication, accessibility, approachability, and proactive instructional support practices. “I really like that because even though it’s an online class, we still have that somewhat of a face-to-face feel like we know who our professor is…It seems like he really enjoys teaching.”
- Students valued interactions with instructors more than with other students
- Students valued multiple ways to engage course content.
- Many students recommended inclusion of interactive technologies in online courses that were strictly text-based.
- Students were most satisfied with interactive technologies that had clear instructional purposes.
The presentation’s conclusions were quite reasonable, and help explain what the problems are in less effective online courses:
- Few online instructors optimize use of interactive technologies in ways that enhance students’ reported learning experiences.
- Static content delivery that relied heavily on text-based materials and activities dominated, and was less engaging for students.
- Failure to clearly articulate the connection between technology-mediated activities and learning objectives potentially undermined relevance for students.
- Effective use of interactive technologies requires significant training and practice.
- Existing professional learning resources appear promising but lack effective delivery mechanisms for instructors.
My own view, when comparing f2f and online courses, is that I prefer f2f. I like the immediate interaction with students and I hope they like it with me. I also recognize that on average, creating a good online course requires more work and training than creating a good face-to-face course. Neither of these things is really a relevant argument, though. The best courses are neither purely f2f nor purely online. The best f2f courses are supplemented with online resources. The best online courses are supplemented with both synchronous and asynchronous course presentations, and synchronous and asynchronous class discussions.
The real questions to be answered are:
- Given that a healthy fraction of potential students can only take courses online, is it reasonably possible to deliver high quality online courses?
- Given that a healthy fraction of students will continue to take f2f classes, can we use the online learning objects we create to make our f2f classes even better?
Our own experiences at SPSU with TADL and the online courses that come out of it indicate that the answer to both questions is yes.
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Last week’s contest was on the subject “Trees”, and our winner was Jessi Jones, administrative assistant to the Electrical and Mechatronics Engineering Department, with all five correct. Here are the correct answers:
- Eve shouldn’t have eaten a fruit from it. Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
- According to the song, you tie a yellow ribbon around it. The old oak tree.
- Symbol on Canada’s flag. The sugar maple.
- Nickname of the state of Maine. Pine Tree State.
- Author of the poem “Trees”. Joyce Kilmer.
A special bonus award goes to Matt Weand (Biology), who submitted the following answers for your erudition:
1. An apple tree? It’s questionable. Apples are native to Kyrgyzstan. Was the garden of Eden over there? Did apples occupy the Middle East at that time? Or was it a pomegranate (which literally translated means “apple grenade”). There’s a lot of debate about what the tree actually was, if it was at all.
2. Oak. The genus Quercus contains a huge number of species globally. Typically oaks have very dense hard wood. For some reason that I don’t understand very few SPSU students realize that acorns are the fruit from oaks.
3. Acer saccharum. Most commonly called sugar, hard, or rock maple. Not to be confused with red or soft maple which is definitely not on their flag. Georgia has both species, though sugar maples are much more common north of Atlanta and at higher elevations because their seeds require a substantial cold period in winter to germinate the following spring.
4. The Pine Tree State, after white pine (Pinus strobus), the fastest growing and tallest of all eastern US trees! The British cut down all the huge ones to use for masts on their ships back before the revolutionary war (because they had logged all the tall trees in England long before then). This eventually upset the colonists and led to the Pine Tree Riot which preceded the Boston Tea Party. Today large areas of Maine have now recovered from mass logging and these giants are appearing again.
5. Joyce Kilmer. And the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina is just a few hours from us. It contains some of the best specimens of “old growth” southern Appalachian forest, huge old trees in both diameter and height in forests that were “never” logged. Usually the reason they escaped the axe was simply that they grew in spots too difficult to access or easily drag the tree out. Most of the giants in Joyce Kilmer were tulip poplar or eastern hemlock (different from poison hemlock). However, the remaining hemlocks died about 6 years ago as a result of the wooly adelgid (ah-dell-jid), an exotic pest killing hemlock trees everywhere. The US forest service, concerned about the danger that these huge dead trees presented to park visitors, decided to remove that danger in way that would not upset the natural undisturbed aesthetic of the forest, i.e. no logging. So they strapped dynamite to the trunks and detonated them, leaving a splintered stump and a fallen tree nearby.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
Today’s trivia challenge focuses on birds and the like. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Three-time NBA MVP for the Boston Celtics.
- Major influenza pandemic, it started in 2003 in Asia.
- Claimed that his expeditions were the first to reach the north and south poles, though this is now disputed.
- Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a song by They Might Be Giants.
- New York Jazz club founded in 1949, it’s called the “Jazz Corner of the World”.