Kendall Chatham, a community college first year student, logs onto her canvas page every morning to find her assignments for the day. Her only interaction with her classmates is a set of teacher prompted discussion posts. Her only interaction with the teacher is a list of assignments and the evaluation of those assignments upon completion. This is not the only of Kendall’s class that is taught asynchronously. Four of the six courses she has enrolled in since beginning at the community college have been asynchronous. The two courses which have live meeting times each meet for 1 hour a week.
Even before the pandemic, distance learning was a popular idea in higher education. First there were free course offerings. Founders of MOOCs (massive open online course) such as Coursera and Udacity espoused their experiments as having the “potential to educate at a global scale…Udacity was founded to pursue a mission to democratize education.” It’s a great idea, but what researchers found is that MOOCs have largely been a failed experiment. Research out of MIT showed that most students do not complete their coursework. The students come from highly developed countries countering the argument that this learning strategy will democratize education across the globe. The authors, Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, of the study astutely point out that: “The 6-year saga of MOOCs provides a cautionary tale for education policy makers facing whatever will be the next promoted innovation in education technology.”
Despite our knowledge of the failure of online coursework, revenue-strapped universities and colleges sought ways to expand their offerings to a broader audience. The University of Arizona offers more than 100 degrees 100% online. Online students increase the revenue stream for many universities. Online courses also offer flexibility for students and professors. Yet, the quality of online courses varies greatly. Some offer online class meetings similar to that of in-person classes, others have weekly assignments with little to no interaction, and others are completely self-paced.
“Teaching” a course asynchronously is the laziest form of teaching. To teach this way, you simply need to put together a syllabus and then mail out some assignments and grade them. There is no “teaching.” Completion is much lower in online lecture courses. Murphy and Stewart(2017) found that withdrawal rates in online lecture sections are higher than in traditional sections and that students who retake the course online are three times less likely to be successful than students who attend traditional courses. The online course simply failed to engage students. Researchers Johnson and Aragon found that GPA and hours enrolled played a role in completion of online courses. So, those who are most likely to succeed are those who are most likely to succeed in any course. But community colleges often serve a broad audience, many of whom may not be top GPA students. The community college is a great place in its catering to all students. It is in itself an extension of the public high school. So, when they stack up their courses with asynchronous courses, they are not serving the neediest students in their population. A study of community college students’ perspectives on online courses found that “students reported lower levels of instructor presence in online courses and that they needed to ‘teach themselves.’ “
Asynchronous courses are a disservice to the student body. Yet, they have become pervasive. A quick perusal of a community college schedule finds the phrase “This is a fully online asynchronous class, allowing the student to work according to their schedule to meet the weekly requirements outlined by the course instructor” more common than not. What are my tax dollars paying for? At what point as educators did we decide that it was okay to just toss a bunch of questions and readings in an online portal and call it a course? At the bare minimum, jump into a zoom room once a week with students and have a discussion. Many of the professors don’t even offer in-person office hours. They simply just have text conversations.
It’s as if students are taking from a robot or simply taking a correspondence course. Technology allows for providing access to coursework from anywhere, but that does not mean we should expect so little of higher education. This is not teaching or learning. Learning is about thoughtful discussion and debate. It challenges our thinking and connects us as a community. Policy makers, community members, and students should demand more for their tax dollars.