Beyond the Classroom Walls: Mark Fenton-O'Creevy Champions Online Learning

Beyond the Classroom Walls: Mark Fenton-O'Creevy Champions Online Learning

Mark Fenton-O’Creevy argues that with the right approach to teaching and the right resources, online education can be of even greater benefit to students than traditional classroom learning.

Increased demand for educational access and greater opportunity for business schools to reach a wider student body are steadily nudging the direction of learning toward online delivery. But does less physical interaction mean less engagement? Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, associate dean and professor at the Open University Business School and a facilitator of AACSB’s Online and Blended Education Seminar, argues no, and that, in fact, the opposite can be true. With the right approach to teaching and the right resources, online education can be of even greater benefit to students than traditional classroom learning. In the following interview, he elaborates more on his perspectives.

Do you foresee online and blended education platforms eventually replacing, or significantly reducing, teaching staff at traditional higher ed institutions? If so, will the demand for instructors slow, creating an overcrowded market of job seekers—or has this already happened?

There is a hidden assumption in this question that I fundamentally disagree with. Platforms don’t teach; they are just a setting for learning and teaching. Of course there are better and worse platforms just as there are better and worse classrooms.

We need to remember the C in ICT: information and communications technologies. Good teaching is about dialogue, between professor and student, between student and student, between different perspectives on a subject, and between theories and practices. This is just as true online as face to face. Online learning can be a very engaging, highly interactive experience, and that is certainly how it is practiced in my own institution. Getting to that level of engagement requires skilled learning design, expertise in the subject, and significant interaction with students.

I believe that online and blended learning approaches offer the opportunity to significantly increase access to high-quality learning opportunities and to improve the quality of student learning. That will mean we need more faculty, not fewer. However, I do think that the skill mix will change. What some institutions are realizing is that online learning technologies challenge us to think hard about the ways in which we design and deliver learning; not just to replicate the classroom but to go beyond it. This may mean, for some, an end to the single professor working alone, communicating their singular vision of their subject to their students. We should expect a move, in the future, to more working in teams; teams of academic experts, learning designers, media developers, learning technologists, and teaching assistants. We should expect to continue to produce some of our own learning materials but increasingly to also develop skills in curating learning materials produced by others. In some ways this is just an extension of what many of us already do as we draw on cases and textbooks others wrote.

In a world that increasingly caters to technological engagement, how can instructors of online classes retain a sense of human engagement? Do you think it’s important to do so?

I work in an institution that has decades of experience in distance learning approaches, and we have become pretty good at supporting learning online. However, for many students, we do still have face-to-face elements in the mix. I think we have arrived at the stage where I can honestly say that we can deliver learning online that is as good or better than the face-to-face equivalent. However, what is harder to do is to deliver that element of social support that many students need as they hit challenges. It is hard to find the online equivalent of the individual chat at the end of a class with a struggling student or the group of students who naturally chat over a coffee after the class and take solace in discovering that they are not the only one who finds a topic difficult. For the moment, I and many colleagues believe in retaining some face-to-face elements as an important element in supporting students.

I do, though, increasingly see the possibility of improved social support in the online setting. First, many of us are getting used to maintaining kinship and friendship networks online (through Facebook, for example). It no longer seems strange to consider the online environment as a place where we can get support from colleagues, friends, or family. Second, learning analytics increasingly give us the opportunity to spot students early who are at risk of failing or dropping out. The technology can be a tool to help us know who needs our personal intervention.

"What some institutions are realizing is that online learning technologies challenge us to think hard about the ways in which we design and deliver learning; not just to replicate the classroom but to go beyond it."

Finally, as in the classroom setting, the sense of human engagement depends a good deal on tutor-to-student ratios. In a lecture theater with 400 students to a single professor, it is hard to have that sense of human engagement. It is the same online. In my own institution we work with a ratio of 20 undergraduate students to one online facilitator and 16 to 1 in the postgraduate program.

We recently conducted a video interview with John Byrne, of Poets & Quants, who said that the advances in online education are “a big, scary thing.” One reason he cites is that, “down the road, if employers recognize these free credentials [via MOOCs] and grant raises and promotions and even employment on the basis of them, that severely undermines the higher education model.” Do you think this is a legitimate reason to be concerned?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a great contribution to widespread engagement in learning. They open up access to a large range of learning experiences for very large numbers of potential students. They can also be a great sandbox for institutions to experiment with new approaches to teaching. They are, though, no panacea for the problems of higher education and are by no means representative of the field of online learning. Nor is it likely that they can replace traditional models of teaching.

The very first MOOCs were created in Canada in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and were very innovative in their (connectivist) pedagogic approach. They aimed to be highly interactive with an emphasis on creating learning and communities and on peer-to-peer learning. More recent MOOCs, for example those developed at Stamford and then through Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, tend more toward replicating the classroom experience online and are innovative mostly in the scale at which they operate. Both approaches have in common a concern to deliver learning experiences at a very large scale for free.

However, it would be wrong to consider MOOCs a primary model for online learning in higher education. MOOCs mostly attract people who already have a degree, and they have low retention rates. Both of these problems arise from a common cause. Because MOOCs are free, they need to be low cost to run. This implies low levels of student support from course tutors. Without interactive and engaging support, it is hard for some students to maintain momentum when they get stuck with a learning challenge and the people who will be best equipped to benefit from the course are those who already “learned how to learn” during their degree. MOOCs are, though, increasingly interesting to employers as an opportunity for updating and continuing professional development for their employees and may offer increasing opportunities as a vehicle for schools to provide learning services to employers at scale. The movements toward badged MOOCs and assessment frameworks for MOOCs do move somewhat in the direction you suggest, but they seem likely to be a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, more mainstream approaches.

In your experience at an exclusively distance-learning university, you must have seen a tremendous evolution of technology in higher education over the past decade alone. Do you think that in general higher ed institutions are doing a good job of keeping up with the pace of technology—or will schools forever be chasing it?

I don’t think we should worry about chasing the latest technologies. Don’t let technology be the driver. Rather, ask yourself, what technologies are available that help me deliver on strategic goals, on program learning goals, and that help us support students as well as we can. Second, ask about the reliability of those technologies and their accessibility to the audiences you want to reach. We all need to worry about the absorptive capacity of our institutions, but this is about a great deal more than openness to technologies. The real challenge is to look at how the landscape of higher education is changing and respond to the moral imperative of delivering enough high-quality education at an affordable price. Technology can be part of the solution, but it will take a lot more than that.

Do you believe that instructors of an earlier generation, who did not grow up with the same technological invasiveness as many of today’s students, are behind their students when it comes to understanding and adapting to modern technology?

I think the idea of “digital natives” has done a great deal of harm. Levels of digital literacy vary tremendously across the range of students coming in to our schools. We also do our students a great disservice by assuming that a facility with social media and computer games equips them to learn online, handle a spreadsheet, or make critical and reflective use of a whole range of online information sources. We can’t abdicate our responsibility to help students acquire those skills. Are some faculty less comfortable with technology than others? Yes, of course. But you know what? Most faculty are pretty smart people; they know how to learn. Are you really telling me they can’t master these skills if they have the motivation? The real issue is not lack of technology skills; it is the genuine concerns faculty have about workload, job security, and learning to teach in new ways. All too often senior administrators are underestimating the support that people need and the work involved in taking on new ways of working.

Mark Fenton-O'Creevy, Open UniversityMark Fenton-O’Creevy is associate dean and professor of organizational behavior at the Open University Business School in the U.K. His published research spans cross-national management practices and the psychology of financial decision-making. He is coauthor of a recent book on professional learning, Learning in Landscapes of Practice.