The Failure of an Online Program

Sean Michael Morris will be joining us at UMW on November 1 as part of a panel on “Ethical Online Learning” in our Digital Liberal Arts series. Sean is an Instructional Designer for the Office of Digital learning at Middlebury College. He is also the director of Digital Pedagogy Lab. He is interested in the practice of critical digital pedagogy as a social justice movement and has been working in and around digital learning environments for 17 years, in capacities ranging from instructional design to instructor to program chair. He identifies strongly with the post-digital, and he learns, teaches, and theorizes from a contemplative perspective.

It’s evening. An Irish pub in Louisville, Colorado. Fish and chips. Beer. A game of soccer on the TV. I’m sitting down with one of my faculty to revisit the department’s Developmental English course (ENG 090). My goal: bring the course fully online, eliminate the text book, and make it a deeper learning and community building experience for all who enroll. The trick is, almost no one enrolls in ENG 090 because they want to. They enroll because they failed a test. How do you take a student from “You failed. Take this class.” to “Writing is fun!” And how do you do that online?

My meeting started with that question, and the course itself grew out of more questions. We spent our time asking how a thing could be done — “How can we eliminate a text book?” “How can we make assignments that are meaningful, student-centered, and relevant?” “How can we make this course equally accessible to native English speakers and second language learners?” — and very rarely, if ever, saying that something could not be done. We opened our minds to the ways that we could open the LMS. We decided on quizzes that were iterative, formative and not summative. We chose to create a voice for the course that was friendly and work that united students in collaboration rather than making them compete against the machine or us.

That evening, and in the semesters that followed, the ENG 090 course evolved to become more open, more engaging, and over time inspired higher and higher retention.

I was Program Chair of the English Department at an institution that existed next to the community college system in Colorado. We provided online courses for all 13 system colleges. Because our audience — teachers, students, on-ground administrators — was diverse in both their expectations and abilities, always at the fore of any course design was ease of use. How flexible and facile could our courses be? How low-maintenance, too, and thus adoptable? In addition, I faced my personal expectation that every course we offered be as pedagogically sound — and not just sound, but also as innovative as possible. Working within the dim corridors of the Blackboard and WebCT LMSs, it was often challenging to provide enough illumination to help learning happen.

I had long believed that online learning didn’t understand itself. That it was as a two-year-old child who discovers he can walk but doesn’t really understand the nuances of the ambulatory act, nor really even what walking’s for. For years — and especially after the widespread adoption of the LMS — there had been a kind of “because we can” attitude among instructional designers and online educators. No one was asking whether we should or, more importantly, what exactly online learning was for.

My institution at the time, like many then and many now, thrived in a climate of non-inquiry. We created courses that met state-mandated standards, that enjoyed consistently higher and higher enrollments (in my short tenure, my department went from offering 25 sections to 50 sections each term), and we aspired to be a model for online learning programs everywhere. On paper, we looked great. But failure was inevitable.

In Fall of 2012, the Developmental English course that was birthed that evening at the pub, and which has also enjoyed tremendous growth in enrollment and attendance over the last five years since I left my post, was redesigned. It was redesigned by the administration, Frankensteined together from bits and pieces of variations on the course, armed with incredibly rigid rubrics for discussion posting, assignments, and other student contributions, engorged with hard-to-take and hard-to-grade weekly quizzes, and derailed by inconsistencies between assignments, discussions, and lectures. Before this redesign, ENG 090 justified an offering of ten to fifteen sections in a single term. And the semester following, only four sections filled.

It seems natural to assume that students spread the word and chose to take the course at other institutions. What at one time was a meaningful, interesting developmental class had become a nightmare, a punishment for failing the English comprehension test.

So what went wrong? Clearly, instructional design choices are partly to blame. But why were those choices made?

A climate of non-inquiry can create a robust online learning program. But it corrupts that program from the bottom, up. A climate of non-inquiry, where we all hold our meetings with our blinders firmly strapped about our cheeks, corrodes the best-intentioned online programs because it allows us as administrators and teachers to never be learners. And the truth is, there is a great deal of learning still to be done. An insistence on doing things as we’ve always done them, on trying to match piece to piece, part to part, learning object to learning object, only limits us. Non-inquiry blinds us to the environment in which we’re actually teaching.

Online learning not only will fail; in its current iterations it already has. We should not try to fix what’s wrong with online learning now; instead, we should pretend it never happened, start from scratch, and begin playfully outside the borders of how we’ve always taught and how we relate to the machines that can help us teach. The only way we can surface from this quagmire of poor teaching, uninformed design, and lackluster (or lack of) pedagogy is to admit that we’ve wandered a long way down the wrong path. We need to sit down, have some fish and chips, maybe a beer, and start asking questions again. Freely, openly, curiously, and without fear.

This piece was the second of a four-part colloquy of articles, each piece contributed by authors who have intimate experience with the struggles, failures, and successes of online learning programs. The series consisted of this post with “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It” by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “The Early Days of Videotaped Lectures” by Audrey Watters, and “How Not to Teach Online: A Story in Two Parts” by Bonnie Stewart.

Image by Sergey Kochkarev licensed CC-0