Friday, June 21, 2013

Ch-Ch-Ch-CHANGES! Turn and face the strange.

Bowie's song blasted from YouTube to open one of the last days of UWT's summer initiative on innovative course redesign. Ch-ch--ch-changes! It is strange,  to turn and face the idea that we can reinvent ourselves after teaching in a classroom, very well, for a very long time.

But this is what University of Washington Tacoma iTech Fellows 2013 worked on this week, hunkered down together in a collaboration classroom talking - working - sharing - talking about redesigning courses for the digital age.  And by the end of the week, we were TIRED. Learning is hard. Relearning seemed to be harder, for it included doubt, skepticism, a bit of grieving, and a lot of frustration with technology that whimsically stops working whenever it chooses. A meme one learns when developing courses and teaching online? "Technology will let you down. Love it anyway."

Here's the thing that makes the iTech Fellowship the sweetest and most amazing initiative: we are working harder, faster, and with less resources than other institutions doing the same explorations and we are coming to the same conclusions. We don't have the $200 million dollars PER YEAR that the University of Phoenix is now spending on applied research to improve their learner experience and engagement. (Clayton Christensen, Why Online Education is ready for disruption, now). And we don't have the $40 million dollars in HILT money that Harvard is spending to bring its best and brightest together to reinvent the classroom. (Learning to the HILT). But we have a dedicated faculty who care deeply about our students, about retention, about doing our very best.

As researchers, we can use what others are learning to reinvent our tiny campus because we have something that we believe is just as powerful as money: a commitment to our students to see that they walk with us through the doors of the Tacoma Dome and become graduates. IF reduced seat time, flexible schedules, online opportunities, and technology-enabled personalized learning can help do that, THEN we will get it done. Even if it's risky. Even if there will initially be bumps, lumps, lower evaluations and technology frustrations at every turn. Even if this is hard, hard work on top of the full-time research, teaching and service we already are committed to doing.

Here's some things we considered and will continue to address:

  • Access is not enough. Reduced seat time helps students TAKE classes, but online courses see higher drop rates. Students need to feel connected. Truthfully, we really don't know how to design for that. Yet.
  • Online doesn't work for everyone. How do we guide our students to understanding their own learning preferences and lead them to the courses which are right for them? Enjoying your pajamas doesn't mean you'll learn best IN your pajamas. Older learners, independent learners, self-motivated learners and reflective learners do better online than auditory, kinesthetic and under-prepared learners. 
  • There's enough research evidence that students who are less academically prepared do worse in online courses than in classroom settings. UWT faculty feel an obligation to note this evidence and move forward with a commitment to advocate for institutional support in providing "online skills for online learning"  for under-prepared students. We spoke to campus representatives of the library and to campus tutoring services regarding plans for virtual, anytime, extended support. We also note here that the "Chicken Little" noise raised in reporting generalizations aids little in understanding the data regarding performance differences which can be very small. When addressing a % difference of grade points of 2.77 vs 2.98 in overall online vs classroom for 500,000 courses? Statistical difference IS important AND relative. When the issue is opportunity, students are willing to suffer 2/10ths of a grade point and UWT is willing to be the institution that works to improve even that difference. Access is not enough, but access is a start.
We are sailing our ships forward, coming back together with beautiful courses for peer review using the Quality Matters Process in September. For June, amidst the doubts and wonder and all the technology, there was laughter and joy and food and even inspiration from Jessica in her daily affirmations.
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