Some years ago I attended a health informatics conference and I distinctly recall one of the speakers, in response to a question about the nature of e-health, very matter-offactly asserted, “All health is e-health”. I thought, “Of course!”
Last week I came across a similar notion. In his Hybrid Pedagogy blog Jesse Stommel wrote “I have no interest in debating the ‘whether’ of online learning. That bird has most assuredly flown... I've argued elsewhere that ‘all learning is necessarily hybrid.’ Once again, “Of course!”
I’ve been learning how to teach for the past 13 years, having transitioned from over two decades of full time rural clinical practice into the realm of academe. So while I am (relatively) new to higher education I am, myself, “not that new”. Its perhaps a bit ironic, then, that the very first course I taught (1999) was in fact a hybrid course - two days of face to face teaching at the beginning and end of the semester with the intervening months entirely online. Since that course, my teaching experience has expanded, encompassing traditional in-residence courses all the way through fully online courses in which I am never in the same room (same city? Time zone?) with my learners.
Over these years my perspective on distance learning has, not surprisingly, evolved. Given that my primary teaching domain is health informatics, it is likely no surprise that I began as a fervent distance learning evangelist. More recently - and more wisely, I suspect - I’ve become more of a distance learning technorealist. Throughout this evolution, I’ve been intrigued by my colleagues reactions to online learning. As you would likely guess, the reactions are mixed - but for the most part, it is predominantly negative.
This past summer, Inside Higher Ed published a study, Conflicted: Faculty And Online Education, 2012. The study by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman described the findings of a survey of 4564 higher education faculty as well as 591 higher education academic administrators from across the United States. The results are intriguing. Predictable, yet intriguing.
The investigators asked both faculty and administrators, “Does the growth of online education fill you more with excitement or with fear?” Four out of five academic administrators responded “More excitement than fear”. 58% of faculty, on the other hand, responded with “More fear than excitement.” Similarly, when asked about the quality of learning outcomes in online courses compared to face-to-face courses, four out of five academic administrators believed that online learning is the “same or superior” to face-to-face instruction. Not surprisingly, only a third of faculty believed online courses offered equal or better learning experiences.
One of the most interesting questions in the study related to institutional type. The investigators asked faculty two questions with slightly different wording. First, they asked opinions on the statement, “Online education at my institution is of high quality, but I’m dubious of quality elsewhere”. To this query, faculty were evenly split between “agree” and “disagree”. Yet when asked a slightly different variant of the question, “I have concerns about the quality of online instruction offered by for-profit institutions”, nearly 80 percent of faculty agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
For me, the study supported what I’ve experienced over the past months. In essence university administration increasingly driving distance education adoption and university faculty responding with hesitancy and occasionally strong resistance. And on both sides, the argument is not always supported with current evidence as to the true effectiveness of distance learning.
Much of my teaching is in the domain of information technology in health care. And specifically in the concepts of electronic health records and the adoption thereof. So this story is not a new one. I suspect we’re all familiar with the resistance to change that has been a major factor in the slow adoption of health information technology over the last decade. This resistance is predictable. New technologies - whether in health care or in higher education - are rarely adopted without significant cultural turmoil.
And as with health care, Institutions of higher learning are particularly resistant to change. Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, once observed, “The 85 human institutions that have survived in recognizable form for the last 500 years include the Catholic Church, a few Swiss cantons, the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man, and about 70 universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These 70 universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways.”
My sense is that we may often be engaged (trapped in?) the wrong argument around distance learning. Considering distance learning as good or bad is, well, irrelevant. If the last decade of information technology has anything to teach us, it may well be that “All learning is distance learning”. The question is not, as Jesse proposes, “whether”. It is simply “how”.