Degrees for Download: online learning and concerns for the future

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Graphic by Tanzeel Sayani

Your professor is linked to a circuitboard. Your professor no longer dresses up in a gaudy shirt and tie, because your professor doesn’t dress up at all. Your professor sits comfortably in the central stream of a database, overflowing with data, ready to project quantifiable trends and employ algorithms that can accurately determine the quality of your work.

This is the fear for the future. And, with the advent of new technologies and new artificial intelligences popping up at blistering rates, it doesn’t seem too far removed from the reality we now inhabit.

The world of online learning has grown enormously over recent years, and — trends suggest — will likely continue to do so. As the information attached shows, the year over year growth of online enrolments has followed an upward trend every single year over the past decade, with an enormous recent hike for the 2016-17 year.

Why is online learning so popular? As Religion and Culture professor Alex Damm sees it, there are several reasons.

For the institution, it allows a low cost opportunity to continue dispensing education: standard rates for professors don’t need to be as high, TAs don’t need to be employed and there’s no necessity of booking a space — all of these culminate to make it an easier way to market as well as administer an education.

But Damm also recognizes a very real value in online learning courses for both students and for faculty: the remote flexibility. People who have other time commitments — family, work — are still given the opportunity to learn or to teach.

Where it becomes problematic is when we consider the inherent problems in trying to reconcile two entirely different modes. A classroom can’t be perfectly ported online. Or can it?

Grades in general — probably the most obvious metric by which to determine educational success — tend not to vary much between online and in-class learning. But Damm, in running RE-321 as both an in-class and in online course, has noticed a few less clear discrepancies between the models.

“On average, in a class of between 40 and 80 students, every time, ten to twelve students plagiarize the first assignment in the online course,” Damm said. “It’s almost a given.”

For whatever reason, despite having the same assignments and the same requirements in the classroom as in the online version of the same course — and it should be noted that this is not a documented trend outside of Damm’s attestation — the plagiarism issue tends to be far more prevalent online. In fact, Damm claims that it almost never happens within the classroom.

Without broader trends to analyze this by, it is difficult to accurately assess the meaning behind it. But Damm suggests that it could be seen as a symptom of the online environment. People steal movies online and people form hate groups online because of the anonymity that the medium implies. He believes that it might be the perceived lack of accountability that comes with the internet that makes people feel less of a personal connection with their class and with their work.

So, if they get caught, who cares? That failing reflects on their online avatars, not on themselves as people.

It is when examining the anecdotal that it gets difficult: while chock full of enormous benefits, online learning doesn’t yet seem to be a perfect system — and that can be somewhat scary when considering the future of education.

On this week’s episode of The CordCast, discussing our own experiences with online learning, members of our panel noted less quantifiable metrics about their course satisfaction: our creative director, Tanzeel Sayani, claimed that he found online courses to be easier, and that the marks that he received in them were almost always higher than his in-class grades.

But even this purports to be different when we look at the data: final grades within online learning courses, according to both Damm and Joseph Beer, the director of teaching, learning and development at the university, tend to be more or less the same as in face to face classes. In addition to this, according to surveys Beer has been involved with, many students even find online learning to be more difficult because of the extra self-motivation required to do well in classes.

That’s where it becomes a bit muddled, because the personal attestations don’t tend to perfectly match the data. It is only the quantifiable metrics that determine the success of a class — whether online or in person — that can be directly ported over.

The marks, the assessments and thereby the learning are considered comparatively, and without enormous discrepancy between the results, there seems little reason to consider any dangers within online learning.

But what tends to be true is that the human matters, the human range, is lost in pushing toward the online elements. And, as we push away from that, as we determine more algorithmic ways to push the boundaries of learning into non-mediated environments, the priorities of that learning seem more and more evident.

One of these non-mediated learning systems was reported on in detail in our last issue — a website called Lynda.com, a resource packed full with training and learning videos. Lynda.com is a system with an enormous breadth of information taught through pre-existing video courses that is now available to students and staff at Laurier. But this simplified port of knowledge, distilling an education down to a series of video clips, brings with it an urgent question: is this the future of education?

Beer sees Lynda.com, and other systems like it, to be supplemental. He sees them as a resource to create a more experiential learning model, more analogous to a textbook. This is fortunate, because at least that priority addresses one of the greatest fears about online learning: that it could devolve into a series of less human processes.

Beer sees the online learning model as an extension, and recognizes the benefits of in-class learning. In many ways, the mandate of online learning development is built around the need not to lose those human connections that help to solidify an education.

“All the work in online learning and development is really about student experience,” Beer said.

“So that they have an experience that tries to replicate the level of engagement that one can pull off in a face to face classroom a lot easier — because you’re there, right?”

While this is true, there’s a great many less than obvious reasons why the classroom setting is so effective: obviously there’s the very real, human connection inherent in embodying the same space, but there is also the speed and nuance of communication.

In real life, a conversation can be fast and direct. Exchanges unfold in real time, where thoughts and ideas are more honestly and viscerally expressed. By contrast, online conversation can falter, break down and extend over unideal windows of time, because that momentary pressure is eliminated.

“As an instructor I’m trying to teach to the whole person,” Damm said. “Which is to say, because you’re there in person, all of the nuance in communication, the inflection, the anecdote, the instantaneous and unpredictable discussions, the emphasis is all there in the classroom. But that holistic and full range of communication is lost online.”

Luckily, this at least appears to be a priority to the development of online learning at Laurier.

While courses have to be more purposefully cultivated and crafted for the online environment, a great deal of the effort expended into making these courses is intentionally dedicated to creating a seamless experience. What works online is implemented within in-class courses, and what works in-class is replicated online.

“There’s a lot more oversight in an online learning course,” Beer said, reflecting on how faculty has to be brought in to advise and properly develop programs for the online medium.

“Because there’s a lot more sets of eyes on online courses prior to them going up online, the quality of them are at least as strong as a face to face course.”

The thought of one day having education overhauled into lines of code is a terrifying one and, luckily, one that is — for now — entirely imaginary. There are human elements of learning that are important on an individual and a worldwide level: educators and administrators are people spreading human knowledge, and ensuring that it works and it sticks is absolutely a priority.

Luckily, this priority also seems to apply to the ethos of online learning — at least for now.

The future is a terrifying place, with a thousand different ideas and purposes that have yet to be determined. There are things to be aware of as a culture and individuals as we move forward with more and more online learning, but perhaps the most important is that we never lose sight of our humanity.

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