Online Learning and the Tyranny of the Database

A recent Techcrunch article concerning MOOCs suggested that a majority of people teaching online felt their online course shouldn’t count for college credit. And yet, a refrain I have heard several times recently is that online courses are actually more difficult than the face-to-face course, which got me thinking about what exactly is meant by ‘difficult’. And I realized that one of the things online courses do much better than face to face courses is generate data.

In most online course systems, in order to track progress in the course, and in fact just to make the course operate at all, a great deal of data is tracked. I can look in our system and know when a user logged in, when they clicked a link, when and how they answer questions, what material they looked at for how long, etc. This is not some sort of spyware – it’s just how the system works. But for many people, this data equates to the idea that ‘time spent in system’ is equal to ‘time spent learning’. It is not uncommon for someone to ask for this complete range of data to verify that a course was ‘done right’.

Which brings us back the question of ‘online courses are harder’. It’s easy to set requirements like ‘x posts per week’, and then to track that data precisely. Which increases the time required for the course, without necessarily increasing the time spent learning. It’s sort of a classic metaphor for education today – measure lots, educate little. But online, it’s also driven by technology.

In my former life, I helped install Banner at a number of institutions. Due to the requirement that there be a smooth upgrade path, people were hesitant to modify the system, and as such would change the way they did their job to match the software. The most egregious example of this comes from outside of education – during the housing crisis, when the software package installed wouldn’t let banks figure out how to compare the cost of a loan modification versus a foreclosure, the bank simply foreclosed everything (even though it would have been cheaper in many cases to modify the loan).

It’s nice to imagine a system that meets every professor’s needs, but that’s not going to happen. What can happen is recognition that the software drives the education in an online system, and to take steps at every moment of planning to ensure that the direction it’s driving isn’t toward more ‘difficult’ courses, but better ones.

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