Conversations About E-Learning: Three Ways to Get to Wear the Funny Hat

little old lady baby in gardening hat

Imagine yourself in this hat before using discussion stoppers when talking about e-learning. Image courtesy of Flickr user radlof  under a creative commons license (attribution, no commercial, no remix).

I remember reading a blog post at some point about the way Zappos, the online retailer with the great reputation for customer service, helped employees remember not to “reply to all” when answering an email. The perpetrator gets to wear a funny hat and parade around office to receive the “adoration” of colleagues.  (Rumor has it that one tour with the funny hat was effective in helping employees to remember not to habitually bury their colleagues in piles of unwanted email.) I’m thinking that we might need some version of the funny hat to raise the level of communication about e-learning by helping us to remember not to repeat some of the most egregious rhetorical errors.

It’s been a little more than a year since the presidents and provosts of MIT and Harvard called a press conference and announced a $60M project to “enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.” The day the announcement was made, I added three alerts to my Google News Feed: EdX, Udacity, and Coursera. These are the big three names in this movement to launch a “unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new educational path for millions of learners worldwide,” in the words of then-MIT president Susan Hockfield.

For most of the last year, my Google feed almost never failed to deliver the goods. The daily news chronicled explosive growth in the number of institutions involved with offering MOOCs, the number of faculty teaching them, and the number of students registering for them. To be sure, the number of learners who dropped (or never started) the course was very large, but thousands still completed courses taught by altruistic professors at “good” universities. By and large the faculty members who taught these courses had good things to say about the diversity and commitment of many of the learners. They cited the willingness of volunteers to translate documents, contribute to the forums, compile lecture notes, add to the wiki, and otherwise help shape the class.

Now that we’ve had a year or so to process the information about MOOCs and their various cousins and offspring, it seems that faculty at all levels need to engage in sustained and serious conversations about e-learning and its impact on the future. Serious conversation requires all of us to work to avoid the most egregious discussion stoppers. When I’m tempted to fall into one of the three following traps, I try to imagine myself walking up and down the hallways of Morton Hall while wearing the funny hat. That image usually serves me well in focusing on more productive conversations.

1. You Get to Wear the Funny Hat if You Use the University of Phoenix as the Archetype for Online Learning

For years those of us in the not-for-profit sector of education were able to use the for-profit University of Phoenix as our version of the boogie man. Any conversation could be stopped dead in its tracks with the simple statement that we certainly don’t want to be the the U of P. Even those who knew nothing about e-learning had read the horror stories about recruiting abuses, low retention rates, loan defaults and the like.

While the stories might have been true, hundreds of e-learning programs have helped learners with thoughtful admissions counselors, retention rates that approach those of face-to-face programs serving the same populations, and reasonable tuition. Those are the institutions we need to look to for models and comparisons, instead of falling back on invoking the University of Phoenix.

2. You Get to Wear the Funny Hat if You Assert that Online Education Will Never Be as Good as Face-to-Face Education

Most conversations about e-learning have a moment of comparing online classes with face-to-face classes. Faculty curriculum committees and instructional designers have spent thousands of hours trying to recreate the face-to-face experience with online tools, and most have found the exercise frustrating at best.

We should know that these are different experiences and that asserting that one is better than other is exactly like asserting that apples are better than oranges. (Actually, everyone knows that oranges are better.) We need to get better about specifying what we want the learning to accomplish and then choosing the best activities to accomplish that goal.

3. You Get to Wear the Funny Hat if You Use “MOOC” as a Synonym for “E-Learning”

MOOCs have played an important role in raising public awareness of innovation in higher education, but that public attention brings some dangerous consequences. The sound and the fury surrounding the entry of wealthy and selective institutions into the e-learning world has focused much of the emphasis on the least effective and valuable components of education.

Learning is an extraordinarily complex endeavor, and universities are extraordinarily complex institutions. Courses — particularly lecture courses — are only a very small part of the experience, and there are hundreds of other models for e-learning that might be more effective to help us learn in more effective ways.

If we’re having a conversation about e-learning and I begin to grin a little, you’ll know I’m imagining one of us in funny hat.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.