student services - depersonalization of higher ed

Depersonalized and Decentralized: The Perils of Online Education

In an attempt to cut costs and make learning more accessible to nontraditional students, colleges and universities are increasingly relying on online courses as a mode for instruction. As a high school student, I enrolled in several online courses at my local community college; later, after a traditional college experience, I realized my lack of engagement and low retention of the information was directly linked to the depersonalization of online content.

Inherently, online learning takes away the face-to-face component of education; people who learn by talking through issues, conversing about a topic, or even listening to engaging lectures from professors they care about are at a disadvantage online. Let’s explore some of the ways education has become depersonalized, then look forward to potential solutions.

Overloading Online Professors

Professors are constantly being asked to do more with less. “Class sizes are growing,” is a common refrain professors may be familiar with. Or try this one: “We aren’t giving raises this year, but you will have more students in your class than ever… sorry!” The problem is even worse in online courses, where the perception that content is easily scalable can quickly become an unmanageable problem for instructors.

In some areas around the country, schools with less than 36 children are considered “efficient.” (Run that past a liberal arts undergrad, who boast student-to-faculty ratios as low as 5:1, and they will likely scoff.) U.S. News reported in 2013 that the average online class enrolls up to 150 students. How is a single professor supposed to keep up with grading, yet alone the personal attention that makes these courses meaningful and engaging?

While instructional content can be easily disseminated to many students, the personal attention necessary to make a meaningful learning experience takes much more time in an online course. Rather than having a single class followed by a 15-minute face-to-face conversation with a student, a professor may need several online discussions, a discussion board, and even a video conference (which are often time-consuming to schedule) to get half that engagement.

Perception of “less work”

I will admit: I took online courses with the assumption that they would be less work. Rather than attending an in-person class and engaging in rigorous discussion, I could post at three-paragraph reflection once a week. Rather than reading and grappling with a text for hours, I could select a few key lines and focus solely on those, without any conscious thought to others’ opinions. (Unless, of course, the professor required responses to others’ posts. Then, minimal grappling required.)

If this is the experience of the student, how do we expect anyone to be engaged in this course? How can we even expect the professor to develop rigorous coursework, engaging lectures, and meaningful assignments if the students are expecting less work through the course? Professors are incentivized to finish the course and deliver the content, not to measure outcomes and ensure students are really retaining the material. There is no incentive to improve students’ learning, unless it is self-imposed.

The onus for the “less work” mantra falls on every party. In order to be successful, students must anticipate spending an equal – or even increased – amount of time in order to be successful in an online class. Colleges and universities cannot expect professors to scale content to meet demand; rather, they must invest the proper resources for training, curriculum development, and keeping low student-to-faculty ratios to promote engagement. And finally, professors must hold students to high standards and take the reins in creating compelling curricula rather than accepting the status quo of recycling content.

Next Steps

It is hard to imagine a world in which we do not know each other’s names and do not know the inflection with which another person speaks. These two simple tools have so much power in personalizing education and engaging with one another as people. With evolving technology come new challenges to stay connected with the real world, even as the real world adapts to fit into a more and more decentralized lifestyle. This is the reality of online education, and it’s a problem we must be conscientious in solving if we seek to graduate students ready for life post-graduation.

How do we solve it? By being focused on personalizing the educational experience, whether that is through smaller online classes, combined in-person/online experiences, or by providing virtual opportunities to speak with professors face-to-face through video conferencing, we have the ability to engage more students than ever before.  By strategically allocating resources – both in terms on monetary resources and time – we have the opportunity to engage them in a meaningful and personalized way. And by having these conversations, we are taking a positive first step toward this goal.

Lexie Banks

Lexie Banks

Director of Communications at Cranium Cafe
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.
Lexie Banks
About the author: Lexie Banks
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.
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