A Classroom in the Clouds: Promises and Potential Pitfalls
August 2012, Volume 15, Number 8
By Brian Fox
Our nation’s higher education system, of which community colleges are an integral part, has experienced a sharp rise in the enrollment of online students. This increased enrollment brings with it not simply the demands of additional students, but an entirely new type of student requiring new strategies and technologies. Faculty and administrators, eagerly or reluctantly, are trying to meet these challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing educational landscape. At Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, online enrollment has increased dramatically, just as it has at every institution providing Web-based or cloud-based instruction. Distance education is rapidly becoming the new normal at our institutions, and it is certainly not a fad that will disappear anytime soon. As is usually the case, these changes have not come without criticism and complications.
Internet- or cloud-based classes clearly provide both advantages and disadvantages to their institutions and the students they serve. Although most attention and energy has been placed on the promise of online education, there are pitfalls to be addressed as well. To properly examine cloud-based education or its implementation at an institution, both the pros and cons must be considered.
The Promise of Online Instruction
Anyone involved in Internet-based instruction has been directly and/or indirectly exposed to the numerous benefits of this format. Online instruction offers a great deal of flexibility to both instructors and students, and the degree to which this occurs depends on the specific format implemented. Students and faculty may work from any Internet-capable device to varying degrees, with increasing opportunities for use with smart phones and tablets. Students and faculty may choose when and where they wish to work from a 24/7 time frame, allowing them a great deal of freedom to meet their educational goals. Additionally, cloud-based education provides expanded and more flexible communication not only between faculty members and students, but also among students themselves.
Travel costs may be greatly reduced, a benefit becoming more important as fuel prices rise and the economic situation worsens for many in our population. Cost savings may also be seen for institutions as they are able to serve increasing numbers of students without the need for additional classroom space and the services required to maintain them. Additionally, course scheduling can be maximized in terms of flexibility, with no time restrictions imposed by physical classroom availability. Educators are also being offered an ever-increasing number of learning platforms, ranging from publisher-neutral learning management systems, such as Blackboard or open-source options such as Moodle and Sakai, to publisher-based and hosted systems such as McGraw-Hill’s SimNet, Cengage’s SAM, and Pearson’s MyITLab. Cloud-based services such as Google Docs, Zoho, and Office 365 allow both faculty and students to work online through their browsers individually and cooperatively, further supporting collaboration in the classroom.
Potential Pitfalls of Online Instruction
Of course, just as cloud-based instruction offers a large number of benefits, it also entails potential problems. All of these technologies require both instructors and students to have basic computer literacy, a skill set which should not be assumed, especially with certain demographic groups such as older and poorer students. A student’s first encounter with Internet-based learning can be daunting and often requires a great deal of support from the instructor, particularly in the early stages of a class. Instructors themselves usually require trainingin cloud-based services and online instruction itself. Instructional designers should also be made available to assist course developers in the proper design of cloud-based courses.
The flipside of the flexibility that online education offers to students is a greater demand on their part for personal responsibility and self-management. Without the face-to-face classroom structure, students lacking self-discipline can quickly disengage from the course, resulting in failure or withdrawal. For these reasons, failure rates often tend to be higher in online classes; consequently, instructors need to walk a fine line between encouraging students and demanding personal accountability.
The Internet services used in online classes have hardware and software requirements that further complicate matters. For example, some only work in particular browsers, and others require specific versions of Microsoft Office for assignments. While it is generally expected these days that students have access to reliable high-speed connections, this is still disproportionately a problem for the poor, the elderly, and those living in rural areas. As a result, many students who lack adequate technology infrastructure at home rely on campus-based computer labs, thus increasing their traffic.
Increased financial demands may also fall on both the institution and the students they serve since very few of these services are free and no-cost options often prove inadequate for instructional needs. Institutions must pay license fees and students must pay for access codes and other services, usually in addition to traditional course, lab, technology, and textbook costs. Reliability of technology services may be an issue, particularly if the service being provided is young in its development and liable to experience frequent downtime. Additionally, privacy issues must be considered, particularly with those hosted off campus.
For those services providing autograding of students’ work, accuracy and feedback are often issues. Autograders that grade projects in Word or Excel, for example, are often programmed to accept work done only in a particular way despite the greater flexibility offered to users by the application itself. Unfortunately, it is also common for students to find autograder feedback vague, confusing, and impersonal, decreasing its value and increasing frustration. With the frequent rolling out of new versions of software, services based on a specific version, as well as the application itself, quickly become obsolete.
A frequent complaint of online instructors is that students are unreasonable in their expectations, feeling that instructors should respond immediately to their discussion posts and emails regardless of the time of day, including weekends and holidays. Online instructors often voice unhappiness over their teaching workload as well, citing, for example, the need to compose all replies, develop detailed written instructions and lectures, and respond to increasing communications. To exacerbate this situation, some administrators assume that online classes can function like traditional lecture halls with one instructor handling very large numbers of students, potentially overwhelming the faculty member. Furthermore, some instructors are simply unhappy teaching in a purely online format or think online instruction is inappropriate for their subjects, a feeling shared by some students.
Authentication, outcomes assessment, and course equivalency are also issues of growing concern to accrediting, state, and federal agencies. Is the student doing the work? Is the student who he or she really claims to be? How can this be verified? Are the classes equivalent to face-to-face sections? How will evidence of outcomes be assessed? Administrators and faculty must carefully consider how to address these matters, keeping in mind the consequences of their decisions. For example, some decisions could limit students’ flexibility of access, such as mandating on-site proctored exams; require the purchase of software or hardware such as video cameras or biometric devices; or place other burdens on students. Although some of these options might be necessary, institutions would do well to consider their ramifications in advance to better provide support during and after implementation.
Add to the question of authentication the related issue of academic integrity, which has long been a concern of online instructors. Many of these faculty members have developed strategies such as proctored exams and the use of services such as Turnitin.com, none of which are without some degree of controversy themselves. If proctored exams are required, for example, how might this affect online students adversely? And does the campus have the facilities to support a large increase in the need for testing facitlities, especially if these must be equipped with computers?
Furthermore, instructors need to consider the issue of classroom behavior. Some students exhibit highly inappropriate behavior online in communications with their instructor and classmates. Should the instructor delete offensive posts? How many warnings should students receive before disciplinary action is taken? Should students be banned from public communications in extreme situations? Instructors must be prepared for this possibility and develop strategies for preventing it and for dealing with it should it take place.
Online Instruction as a Double-Edged Sword
Online learning is truly a double-edged sword; while proponents are quick to proclaim the many advantages of Internet-based education, these same benefits often prove to be complications. Those institutions and instructors who dove into this brave new world as early adopters are well aware of these, as their experiences and research clearly demonstrate. Faculty members from around the country shared their experiences, both good and bad, at the League’s Innovations conference in March 2012, and they were remarkably consistent.
Ideally, all of the challenges described here can be overcome with proper planning, training, and creativity. It is best to anticipate possible problems in instructional and institutional planning for online and cloud-based learning rather than correct them afterwards. Whether preparing to provide online instruction for the first time or assessing an ongoing program of Internet-based courses and services, educators must face these challenges honestly and critically if cloud-based educational programs and the faculty members who serve them are to be successful. As free and for-profit cloud-based learning opportunities increasingly pop up, our challenge is to stay relevant and provide superior service to our students, making this endeavor even more urgent.
Brian Fox is a member of the Business Programs department of Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, and serves as the lead faculty member of the Office Systems Technology programs.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.