Nothing takes the place of a great teacher

Online learning is not the solution it was touted to be. You just can't beat real-life interaction with a great teacher

In 2011, approximately three years after Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) registered in people’s minds, 160,000 students enrolled in CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. Only 20,000 students, 12.5%, completed the course.

Having been hailed as a disruptive technology, MOOCs have not yet swept the board clear of traditional enrolments, but interest and concern about competition is apparent. In New Zealand the online offerings (not yet MOOCS, but web-based learning) are increasing.

The big question is whether or not online can actually do what is required in terms of preparing the workforce…. The fact that online doesn’t reduce workload for lecturers is already clear.

The attraction of online learning is that the lecturer isn’t tied down to a place and time, and the learning can be done when desired. The students feel that they can fit their study in around other activities, which might include work (paid or unpaid in the case of many mothers), sport and social activities. They forget that the nominal 150 hours for 15 credits is very difficult to fit into the week before the exam, even if they have kept up with assignments and done what is required for them.

Reminding students about this, their assignments, and working with them to answer questions and overcome obstacles individually is extremely time-consuming, and therefore costly for the universities. The students can be anywhere, in any time zone, and expect answers rapidly. Lives turning into a string of emails, and being on call day and night are not unknown. Questions that could be handled once in class, turn into individual responses.

The worst problem with the online education has, however, yet to be realised.

New Year’s Honours recipient Sir Murray Brennan said on Radio NZ early in the New Year, that he put his success down to a great Otago education, serendipity and hard work. His driving force was a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and the privilege of looking after a cadre of young people during his working life. Ultimately, he said, your legacy in life is who you train, who you engage and who you look after.

His experience was face-to-face working with somebody motivated to challenge the status quo themselves and to make a difference.

Many people in education feel exactly the same.

So do many people in the work force.

Great Jobs Great Lives, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report, studies more than 30,000 college graduates across the US. It examines the long-term success of graduates in their pursuit of good jobs and better lives and links it to their college experience.

Engagement is more than job satisfaction. Gallup defines it as employees being intellectually and emotionally connected with their organisations and work teams because they ae able to do what they’re best at, they like what they do at work, and they have someone who cares about their development at work. Well being is defined as purpose (liking what you do each day and feeling motivated to achieve goals), social (having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life), Financial (effectively managing economic life to reduce stress and increase security), Community (engagement with the area in which you live, liking where you live and feeling safe and having pride in your community), and physical (good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis).

The number one influence on engagement was found to be whether the graduates had had a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams. This experience more than doubled the chances of being engaged at work and thriving in their personal well-being. In addition, if graduates had had an internship or job where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extra-curricular activities and organisations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, engagement at work also doubled.

The report concluded that feeling supported and having deep learning experiences was more important in long-term outcomes for college graduates than which college was involved; small, large, selective, non-selective, public or private - the outcome depended on the professor and the professional activities that surrounded the teaching: “When it comes to finding the secret to success, it’s not “where you go,” it’s “how you do it” that makes all the difference in higher education.”

Sadly, only 14% of graduates strongly agreed that they were supported by professors who cared, made them excited about learning and encouraged their dreams. Only 6% strongly agreed that they had had meaningful internships or jobs, worked on long-terms projects and were actively engaged in extra-curricular activities. Overall only 3% of graduates in the survey strongly agreed to having had all six of the important experiences during their college years. Good news for tertiary providers was that 39% of college graduates were engaged at work, which is higher than the 30% for America on average.

The report found that the effect of college on well-being was also important. College graduates who were engaged at work, were also nearly five times more likely that the non-engaged to be thriving in the five elements of well-being: purpose, social, community, financial and physical.

If the employed graduate felt that their college education prepared them well for life, the odds of being engaged at work almost trebled and of thriving in all areas of well-being more than doubled. Overall, only 29% of college graduates strongly agreed that their college prepared then well for life outside of college, but agreement raised the likelihood of attachment to the alma mater nine-fold.

An additional finding was that the longer it took to graduate, the lower the workplace engagement: on average 40% of graduates completing studies in four years or less were engaged whereas a longer time to completion reduced engagement to 34%.

On-line information transfer whenever it can be fitted in is not the answer to an education system that will transform the country.

Teaching is about engaging and motivating; it is about empowering. Good teachers build on the strengths of their students, and encourage them to use their abilities to challenge the status quo, building a better future.

Taking away the personal input from lecturers will reduce the chances of recruiting great teachers into academia. It will also reduce engagement in the workforce.

Current drive to make education more affordable for everyone by encouraging greater participation through on-line learning is having negative effects on job satisfaction within tertiary providers… leading to bad ripples through the workplace and on into communities.

Lecturers need time to do their job properly – to focus on education and mentoring rather than recruitment of ever larger numbers. Certainly this will be more expensive than the current model - but the rewards will be in engagement and hence productivity; community health will also benefit.

The direct benefit for the tertiary providers is that graduates who felt supported during their time at college were found to be more than six times more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater. This has implications for benevolent funds.

MOOCS and online learning might have a place in supporting education, but nothing can replace the personal input of a great teacher. Sir Murray Brennan, Knight Grand Companion, has made the two way benefits clear.