There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.
The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.
In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.
When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.
If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.
Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.
While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.
At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.
What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.
The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.
The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.
This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.
Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.
Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.
There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.
There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.