Apodaca: Questions surround online college courses

Surprise, surprise. Online education is running into some bumps on the road to revolution.

If there was any doubt that this would be the case, it was confirmed by a recent episode at UC Irvine that involved a professor quitting an online class, saying he wouldn't compromise his standards. The professor, who taught an extension class in microeconomics offered through the Coursera organization, apparently was frustrated by attempts to get students to obtain and read the textbook.

It would be tempting to view this incident as proof that the online model doesn't work and never will. It would seem to confirm critics' views that computer-based learning programs are inherently inferior and pose too many unworkable problems to ever become the vital component of our education system that advocates envision.

But just as it's premature to expect an overnight renaissance in education due to online offerings, it's also wrong to assume defeat.

To be sure, there are problems with online education, both in the K-12 universe and at the college level. For now, let's look at the issues with online college classes, many of which are now offered through the suddenly ubiquitous massive open online courses model.

MOOCs, as they are known, are the controversial new rock stars of higher education, the Internet-based classes that are open to anyone, anywhere. A growing number of top universities have signed on to offer MOOC classes for free, or for a minimal fee, allowing students to watch recorded lectures online.

Although many MOOC courses don't qualify for college credit, colleges increasingly are looking at providing opportunities for students to complete at least some of their requirements through these and other online classes.

Coursera, founded by a couple of Stanford professors, is one of a handful of MOOC providers — including Udacity and edX — that are experiencing phenomenal growth. But along with the heady growth, questions and issues have quickly emerged.

A recent New York Times editorial, for instance, contended that a "dirty secret" of MOOCs is that they're "not very effective," and claimed that a 10% completion rate is standard. Another op-ed piece, also citing a supposed 90% attrition rate from some online courses, suggested that MOOCs are a viable option for highly skilled, motivated people, but don't work for struggling students who need face-to-face contact.

Indeed, while many MOOC lectures are by top professors from elite institutions, where the online classes seem to come up short is in providing individual feedback and guidance. What's more, with some class enrollments well into the thousands, the system of grading — often done by other students — is highly inconsistent, and cheating can easily proliferate.

If MOOCs are ever to evolve into a means for students to earn degrees from accredited institutions — a direction many believe we're headed in — such issues must be resolved.

Yet, in spite of the problems, boosters can also cite evidence that online college classes can be successful. Udacity, for example, is running a pilot program for remedial students at San Jose State University that has so far experienced a dropout rate of only 20%.

Proponents of the online model also note that the MOOC facilitators have begun moving away from utilizing only video lectures, and toward a more interactive design that incorporates frequent quizzes and more personalized online support. One recent study found that online learning that included an interactive component produced results equal to or better than traditional classes.

Some MOOCs are also evolving organically as students form their own study and discussion groups to replace the kind of support and face-to-face contact they'd otherwise miss.

UCI, unfortunately, seems to have gone into defensive mode after the professor's resignation brought the university some unwanted publicity. By denying interview requests, an opportunity has been missed for UCI to contribute to a substantive discussion regarding what's been learned about online learning that can help make such classes more effective.

Instead, the university refers media callers to a canned statement by Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education, which asserts that the professor who quit was "not accustomed (as few are) in teaching university-level material to an open, large and quite diverse audience including those who were not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives of the course" and didn't obtain all the course materials. The class would continue, the statement says.

UCI officials needn't have been so touchy.

Online education is still in its infancy, and though the growth of MOOCs has been huge, we're a long way from figuring out the most effective means of utilizing the learning potential of the Internet. UCI won't be the last institution to encounter some troubles in implementation.

What we've learned so far seems to suggest that so-called hybrid, or blended, models might offer the best solution. Finding the right mix of Internet instruction and interactive learning will take some time and trials; the quest for perfection in education is always an elusive goal.

MOOCs will probably go through many iterations, and possibly a few name changes along the way. But bumps on the road notwithstanding, it would be foolish to think that their shortcomings are fatal. From massive and open to small and closed, online learning is here to stay.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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