In the wake of the pandemic, I have been receiving a flood of calls and emails about what it means for online higher education – panicked former students and colleagues trying to figure out how to “go online” despite their institutions having been online for almost a generation; excited investors who, having taken the plunge to invest in the very dicey world of EdTech, think that finally they will see returns more typical of software; and most heartedly, lots of socially-minded entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to help. This all begs a question: will the Coronavirus finally bring about the promise of online learning?  

It has been almost thirty years since I first got involved in online learning and twenty years since I provided testimony to both Congress and the UN on its promise.  Our goals back then were to increase access, help manage the crazy rising costs of college and to have “no significant difference” compared to face-to-face learning. We were just wrong then in our heuristic and as a consequence I am not bullish on what our collective response will be now. The problem isn’t the technology but is much more fundamental and has to do with design, and it may force us to look under the hood and not like what we see when it comes to teaching and learning in college.

The evolution of technology has made it accessible – anyone can now create content and distribute it.  It is incredibly democratizing and empowering. It is reasonable to assume that given the user-friendly design of so much of this technology, all we need to do is put it in the hands of faculty and watch the magic happen.  What we forget is the lesson of YouTube: for every amazing video, there are hordes that are just terrible, almost unbearable to watch. And the problem isn’t one of technology or content (well, okay, sometimes it is content) but largely it is a problem of technique, of design, of what we can loosely call digital pedagogy – how to use the technology with the content in order to teach and to tell an effective story given the constraints and affordances of the medium.

To better illustrate the point, let me build on the analogy of film.  Take Shakespeare; hopefully we can all agree that as “content” it is pretty good.  It was, however, designed to be delivered live to a particular type of audience from a stage.  There are certain skills, knowledge, and dispositions required of all the stakeholders (not just the actors) in order to deliver the play effectively.  In the early days of movies there was great excitement of the power of the technology to democratize this content – to bring Shakespeare to the masses.   Folks did what seemed reasonable, using great stage actors they filmed the play. At best, the result was something derivative of a great live play and often the result was terrible.  

There are several things requisite to turning something like Hamlet into a great movie.  First one needs to reimagine the content. Film is a different “technology” than a stage and limits the producer in many ways but also creates some really interesting affordances (close ups, playing with time and point of view, etc.).  One needs to pull apart the content and put it back together, keeping the integrity but redesigning it so that the story is suited to the medium. This is not a trivial task. One must know the content, the medium, and the goal.

It also requires bringing together some different sorts of people. Remember “Singing in the Rain” and the silent movie actress who had a terrible voice? The assumption that something that works in one context will translate to another is fraught with peril (she got neither the part nor the boy). If you don’t believe me, as an empirical experiment go to YouTube and search for your favorite play. Chances are you will find (depending on copyright) all sorts of examples. They will all have the same technology and content and the quality will likely be quite varied. Content and tech do not equate to excellence.

We are doing the exact same thing when it comes to online learning.  Faculty generally are not trained in pedagogy or even basic classroom techniques to begin with.  The assumption is that if they know the content they can teach the content. This approach is based on a system that works reasonably well when one has highly talented and motivated students (it is why the “top” schools put so much emphasis on building their cohorts). Indeed, there is a good body of work done by economists that suggest that the types of students who go to the most selective schools would succeed regardless of where they went to school. The point is that our collective approach to higher education pedagogically has been largely left to the content expertise of the faculty and the talents and motivation of the students.

We are now collectively approaching moving that whole system online by taking this democratic empowering, but anti-expert approach. We have colleges’ learning technology teams (if the institution is rich enough to have one) scrambling to put the tools in the hands of faculty and train them enough to make them dangerous. As a system, we are not thoughtfully reimagining the college given the affordances and constraints provided by an online medium. If you don’t believe me, try and make a cooking video of your favorite recipe (a common assignment in film schools).

Moreover, most online programs historically were targeted at “non-traditional” students who as a community have different needs.  Perhaps the most at risk are the small liberal arts colleges who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach in small settings.  How does the Socratic Method work in a synchronous session? Should I flip my classroom and record lectures? If we are lucky these sorts of conversations are happening all over the country. I am skeptical. 

I learned this the hard way some twenty years ago when I was tapped to design and deliver all the ethics training for WorldCom in order to remove SEC sanctions and get the firm out of bankruptcy. I had come up with a clever pitch to use online teaching/education/learning to reach all 86,000 employees around the world and first tapped colleagues from accounting, law, and philosophy. What we built was terrible. It wasn’t until we brought in colleagues with expertise in film and the science of learning that we began to understand what we needed to do.  The lesson I learned then is that while the culture of higher ed is very much one of individual experts in subjects, online learning – much like film – is a team endeavor. 

If we are lucky, this terrible virus will force us as a community to finally substantively engage – about HOW we teach. Interestingly if we did that we might address the longer term pressing issue about how employers perceive our effectiveness as teachers (research suggests that the problem of graduates’ missing “soft skills” is less a function of WHAT they have been taught in college and more a function of HOW they have been taught), but that is for another day. I hope your institution will try and make the proverbial lemonade.  If you want to support that approach remember the best online learning is one that is driven by design rather than technology and involves and engages an myriad of expertise that go beyond simple tech and content.