McTeaching: Online Instruction

McJobs has come to mean low-paying jobs with limited skill requirements where turnover is high, workers’ activities are programmed, and the work is supervised closely by managers.

McTeaching or online instruction is where tightly sequenced software with accompanying worksheets and quizzes especially in credit recovery courses become the meat-and-potatoes curriculum. Other online courses with  live teachers lecturing in a studio have step-by-step rules of face-to-face engagement with distant learners are higher-level McJobs. Both forms of online instruction have lower prestige among teachers (many of whom may fear being replaced by high-tech McJobbies in the form of software programs and cyber-teachers).

Surely, there is much variation in online instruction both in K-12 and higher education venues. The history of using the Internet for all forms of education has multiple roots and branches guaranteeing differences. Web courses differ in delivery; some emanate from virtual schools with a curricular menu of software and teacher-directed courses; others are courses with online teachers having discussions in real time with face-to-face contact periodically. Online students range from home schoolers to those enrolled in the International Baccalaureate diploma program and Advanced Placement courses to those taking course for MBA and engineering programs. Then there are all those students who have failed courses and sign up for credit recovery.

The quality of online instruction also varies. There are stars among instructors who relish the work, plan thoughtfully, use the limited face-to-face interaction and discussion threads during the course creatively, and offer many stories of student success. Software designers have also created programs that both entice and push students through carefully sequenced lessons sufficient to teach complicated concepts clearly and crisply. Such stellar performers and well-designed software turn some McJobs into superb opportunities. But most online instructors and software programs plod along well-worn roads that only highly-motivated, independent students can traverse to finish the journey.

Even if those who tout online learning (derisively called “click-click” courses by critics) as the “disruptive innovation” that will replace regular schools or, those advocates of “blended learning” (sometimes called “hybrid” schools) spread their gospel, two facts are incontrovertible.

First, online teaching costs less per student than regular classroom teaching (see here,pp.7,80; and national_report, p. 7). At a time of rampant budget cuts, online instruction with lower instructional costs and seemingly positive student results (finalreport-5) give champions of web-based instruction from Bill Gates to the Idaho state superintendent license to tout the efficiency and effectiveness of applying high-tech solutions to delivering instruction.

Second, online learning offers limited face-to-face interactions between teachers and students compared to regular classroom instruction. Most online instructional enthusiasts assume that effective teacher lectures, software, programmed lessons, video clips,  exercises, and tests will achieve the goal of transferring knowledge from teacher to learner.

But different assumptions prevail for classroom teaching: the trust that grows from sustained face-to-face relationship between teacher and student is fundamental for learning; teachers develop teaching persona and emotional relationships with students (e.g., Rafe Esquith, Jaime Escalanate, Erin Gruwell) that students come to recognize and expect as lessons unfold; teaching is a performance (Am Educ Res J-1994-Pineau-3-25) and the “constant living interaction between teacher and audience makes every performance a new event.”

No, I am not romanticizing regular classroom teaching. I do know the variation among teachers’ personas and their teaching that occurs within the same school and across a district. I also know the inherent dilemmas that teachers face when bonds of affection develop with their students and they risk losing those affections when they press students to think harder and dig deeper into the subject matter. Or when they try to individualize instruction for 30-plus students. Further, I know well the uneven and too often low quality of teaching that occurs in largely poor and minority schools. So, I will not make every urban teacher a Rafe Esquith or Erin Gruwell.

The point I want to make is that the purposes of teaching include but go far beyond transmitting knowledge, the aim driving online instruction. Classroom teachers want to develop in students the desire to learn more about the world, themselves, and others; they want to demonstrate through word and deed how to live a decent life.

For those who seek the benefits of individualizing instruction through online lessons and having a teacher available to help and teach group lessons–what some call “blended learning” or “hybrid” schools–the combination defuses some of the criticism leveled by both parents and teachers at offering a full menu of online instruction. Nonetheless, the cost of such “hybrid” schools once up and running remains less than fully staffed regular schools, a fact evident to anyone who can read a budget.

Cheaper to do and employing different assumptions about teaching and learning, McTeaching in online instruction increasingly edges closer to McJobs.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

12 responses to “McTeaching: Online Instruction

  1. While I’m pleased to see you acknowledge that there is a range of quality in on-ground instruction, I’m disappointed that you’re unwilling to acknowledge the same range for online education. While there is junk in both arenas, there is also very good education happening in both. You choose to take an on-the-whole online is evil attitude. There are programs where course design builds community, where students say they know their online teachers better than they know their face-to-face teachers, including teachers they’ve had F2F for a full year.

    Yes, you should be throwing stones, or even boulders at the click-click programs, and those that try to replicate poor on-ground pedagogy online, but please take the time to discover where the good online programs are that have addressed and solved all the negatives you throw up to paint all online education.

    And your two incontrovertible facts don’t apply to ALL online courses/programs again, you’re painting with too wide a brush. I don’t expect you’d allow me to say that it’s an incontrovertible fact that EVERY student in poor urban schools get a substandard education. But, I can point to many places where that’s true, as can you. Please, narrow your brush to a realistic size when you talk about online education. There’s plenty enough to throw sticks at.

    • larrycuban

      Fair enough, Ray, on the passing reference to the variation in online instruction and face-to-face regular classroom teaching. That variation is another fact, one that I could have underscored. Thanks. I appreciate your comments on that point.

  2. Thanks for your always provocative posts, Dr. Cuban. You are constantly challenging me and my collaborators to question why we are pursuing projects like a one-to-one computer model for a K-5 school in Fargo, and why we are trying to introduce the Sugar operating system.

    One sentence in this post struck me as worth questioning. “The point I want to make is that the purposes of teaching include but go far beyond transmitting knowledge, the aim driving online instruction.” Perhaps you are correct in general–online instruction is trying to transmit knowledge–but I have found online instruction to actually be more constructivist, rather than less constructivist, than classroom teaching. The medium of oral delivery seems to favor transmission, while online delivery systems, at least potentially, allow for collaborative construction of a course in ways that are harder to reproduce in a f2f class, especially when the students expect the teacher to come in and bank the knowledge.

    • larrycuban

      I agree that online instruction, driven by a transmission model of knowledge, can be used for collaboration and small group learning. When that occurs, as it does from time to time, it is because theteachers were predisposed toward constructvist practices–and bent the format to those ends. Much like some early 20th-century teachers in classrooms with bolted down desks used project-based learning and small groups to do projects. Teacher whose beliefs embrace student-centered approaches have taken initiatives, past and present, to take seemingly fixed structures (bolted down desks, online learning programs) and infuse different activities. Lots of work to go against the grain, however.

  3. We’ve found that our credit recovery programs work better with an adult to provide encouragement and structure to the sessions. Many kids entering a credit recovery situation already believe they can’t learn the material or correctly solve problems. Many appear to be looking for reasons to give up and go home. The teacher can help answer questions, provide encouragement, and will praise the student in a meaningful and human way when he or she makes progress. The children do seem to make progress when we provide an adult to help.
    We use teachers in this role. I’m not sure that a well-trained paraprofessional couldn’t be just as successful. Several of our high school students took a class from Illinois Virtual School this year and were impressed with the quality.
    If this sort of instruction is going to become commonplace, we should decide what defines high quality here and not settle for anything less. So much of what I see looks like correspondence courses converted to be read on a screen.
    Our screens still limit us to thinking in terms of pages, like book pages or worksheets. Many course structures still mimic the chalkboard or slate. I wonder what would happen if someone contracted with Wolfram Research to design a virtual, three-dimensional algebra course where the student worked through goggles and headphones and manipulated variables with virtual hands and a virtual teacher was standing in the display, responding to the student’s work, answering questions, and providing feedback. Wolfram is already putting their toe in the water with their course assistant apps. What will they look like in a few years?
    I hope the future includes a human touch.
    Thanks for another stimulating post.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comments, Jon, about credit recovery programs. Kevin’s comment and my reply suggest that much morecan be done to make credit recovery programs work for those students who need face-to-face help.
      I am unfamiliar with the Wolfram work. More to learn.

  4. Steve Davis

    I am currently coordinating an online credit recovery program. I would not want the course for my child. It is starting to appear that the variation in the quality of online programs is more striking than the variation in the quality of traditional bricks-and-mortar instruction. I have taken true online courses at the university level that included teacher and student interaction: I know a good online program when I see it. The problem is that our most vulnerable students are likely to be enrolled in what Jon Heerboth refers to as “correspondence courses converted to be read on a screen.” These programs are cost cutters. Online courses seem to resemble the early railroads that lacked a standard track gauge. Even reputable online course suppliers sell tiered products. Some course offered by the Florida Virtual School seem to be constructivist and innovative; however, they also seem to sell the low-quality, high calorie online classes that resemble online drill-type test prep. It’s Florida Virtual School that is vendor for “Miami-Dade County Public Schools [who] enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A “facilitator” is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”
    Make no mistakes about it: the facilitator is not a teacher. They are not instructing students. Using online courses like this is not about innovation or even learning. It’s about cutting corners to save money. The chickens will come home to roost in a few short years as graduation rates take a noticeable dive due to the lack of summer school and real remedial classes.

    and from a previous post.

    Online learning does not work for the students who need it the most. While true online learning is promising, the online learning programs that are being foisted upon students who need it for “credit recovery” are just glorified online test prep. Students watch a video then do multiple choice questions. Students need to be self-disciplined to make it through a self-paced course with little or no content area support. Many students who have failed challenging courses like algebra are unlikely to find success with these types of online credit recovery programs. Also, this type of online learning devalues the teaching profession. Teachers are paid as clerks (at way less than per diem rates) to register students and monitor their progress. No teaching is done since many of the classes are outside of the teacher’s credentialed subject area. True online learning should include student interaction with peers and a content-area teacher, e.g., participation in threaded discussions, and writing essays that will be read by a person not an algorithm. No need to show your work on those online math problems, Johnny. Check out how Florida is using online learning to skirt class size limits.

  5. I worry that online instruction will become like the brittle, yellowed overhead transparencies that some teachers used for their entire careers. Once the course is implemented and uploaded, it can sit there and be sold over and over for many years.
    I spoke to a teacher this afternoon who was going to spend the summer reviewing and modifying curriculum for her classes next year. She never teaches a course the same way twice. Every year she thinks of ways to improve and rewrites her course material accordingly.
    Online courses could be easily modified and updated if someone cared to do it. I’m afraid it won’t happen and even in courses where there are live teachers, the same screens will be displayed over and over for years.
    Here’s the beauty of online learning: I can go to the nearby university library and check out Dr. Cuban’s book on computers in the classroom and find out what he thought in 2001 or I can participate in this online dialog and find out what he is thinking today. I always thought I would have to attend a conference or a lecture to interact with a great teacher and scholar. That is no longer necessary. This aspect of online learning is powerful and stimulating. Hardly McTeaching. What can I learn from this experience that I can provide for our students who want to use the online environment to further their educations? How would I implement that in our schools?

  6. Larry, I would like to extend one idea in your post. Teacher-student interactions in face-to-face classrooms are typically one-to-many. Teacher-students interactions in online classes are typically one-to-one. The result is that online education can feel personalized and individualized to the student. In part, this depends on the degree to which students view an online interaction as rich and interactive — synchronous video helps. Not that this is the dominant model for online education today, but it is possible in an online school founded on such principles. We are trying to do this with

    • larrycuban

      I agree, Richard, that one-to-one is not only possible with online instruction–I have seen it and experienced it–such individualization of teaching and learning occurs every day. But, as you say, it is not the dominant model. Some programs, such as yours and others, do pursue these principles. Most programs do not.

  7. Undeniably consider that that you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to be at the web the easiest factor to be mindful of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed even as other people think about concerns that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the entire thing with no need side effect , folks can take a signal. Will probably be again to get more. Thanks

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