Effective Online Courses

Let’s assume that online courses are or will soon be as effective as in-person education. Is that a stretch? Probably not, because face-to-face teaching is, on average, is not very good. University-wide professors’ ratings are typically 3.0 to 3.75 on a 1 to 5 scale – a score of just 60 to 75. Teaching can be improved by at least one full point. Yet, I do not find much evidence of university leadership seeking to substantially improve face-to-face teaching via Lean teaching or any other means.

If face-to-face teaching largely remains as it has long been, then it is likely that online courses will soon meet or exceed in-person courses in quality and effectiveness. Acceptance for online courses by students could accelerate due to the many chronic problems that plague face-to-face teaching – and which their parents also experienced if they were college students. So parents will be sympathetic to the quality problems and even encourage online degree attainment especially if the tuition is reduced.

When this happens, what is to become of professors?

State schools are the low-cost mass producers who will automate teaching, just as low-cost producers in any industry are known to do. Like most managers, they would much rather adopt a new solution rather than fix old problems. The former earns them points for being progressive while the latter earns them demerits for being a Luddite.

Private schools are the high-cost craft producers and will likely use far less automation because the hallmark of their service is “handmade” education. People who want that service and experience will pay the price.

The value the professor (at state schools, anyway), therefore, must become greatly narrowed. They will serve the role of technical content writer, and will not necessarily be the person who delivers the pre-recorded content to students. That means, highly educated subject matter experts will work behind the scenes similar to the way writers do in television or cinema. The professor’s teaching labor, therefore, would be divided, from one who both writes and delivers to one who writes.

One of the few ways professors could add more value than writing is by facilitating periodic live online discussions. But, they cannot simply repeat the video modules. Their effectiveness would be defined by three things:

  1. Deep knowledge of the history of the subject matter, from its inception to current times.
  2. Relationship of the subject matter to the real world – the working world that students will
    populate upon graduation.
  3. Ability to motivate and inspire students.

Item 1 would be accomplished through self-study or additional formal education. Item 2 is a major problem for career educators who lack real-world work experience. Item 3 depends somewhat on ones proficiency with items 1 and 2.

In this scenario, the person who delivers the material online is akin to the play-by-play announcer in a football game, while the professor is the color commentator (analyst). Sounds like a pretty good job. Maybe it will even pay better than the current one. But, let’s make darn sure we don’t end up as sideline reporters (no offense intended to sideline reporters).

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