Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Can Legitimate Online Education Exist?




By Professor Doom

     I created a 2000 level online course in the previous millennium, which makes me one of the first faculty in higher education to move coursework online.

     I apologize.

     Having studied online coursework and programs for years, it’s very clear taking college work online was a mistake. More accurately, paying for online coursework is a mistake, and a school charging for it is not acting with integrity.

     It’s been obvious, for a very long time, that online schools, online courses, are bogus. It isn’t just the ridiculously high preponderance of cheating. It isn’t just that the jobs marketplace tosses applications from suckers people with online degrees directly into the trash.

      It’s that even if you could actually trust the person claiming to have earned an online degree to be legitimate, even if online schools are legitimate…you still have no reason to think the person has actually learned anything. The way how these courses are set up, and run, there’s really not much chance the student learned anything of relevance.

      Legitimate, unaccredited, schools have no online coursework, or at least nothing like you get at accredited state, non-profit, or for-profit institutions. Unaccredited schools can only attract students by being legitimate, and they do so by guaranteeing free tuition if the graduate can’t get a job…if these schools thought online training was effective, they’d do it. They’ve got a guarantee to honor, however, so can’t waste time with bogus online coursework. Accredited schools have no guarantees…and rape cheat screw rob students that sign up through the student loan scam. Only after students graduate, and can’t get a job, do they realize that a guarantee is a far better deal than a loan.

       Even if the student learns much in an online setting, it’s primarily because the student figured everything out for himself…in which case, why should he have to pay for the degree? 

      I’ve said “Online coursework is bogus” or the like a few times in my blog, of course, but a reader wrote me, incensed, claiming that online education, even training and certification, is quite possible to be legitimate.

      I’m no gender studies professor, when someone tells me I’m wrong, I don’t respond with a tantrum and shouting. I respond with “demonstrate that I’m wrong,” even when years of study has convinced me I’m right. So, I asked for that all-important demonstration.

      We exchanged a few e-mails, and he presented a template for legitimate online education. I’m forced to concede that, maybe, I’m wrong. I’ll amend my claim to “online education as it is administered today is bogus and nobody should pay for it.” As usual, it seems having people only in it for the money makes education all but impossible.

     I’ve posted his entire template on my blog, but I want to highlight a few choice parts, discussing how this would help…and how you’ll never see this in accredited schools.

I wondered how they had a business model, if ensuring that learners learn is not at the very top of their priorities?


     This right here is the great disconnect between the author and the reality of higher education today. In the US, at least, the purpose of online education is to grow and spread to as huge a market as possible, to soak up as much student loan money as possible, for the purpose of making as much money as possible.

      Does the gentle reader see the word “learning” anywhere in that set of goals? No? Well, that’s why the author’s course structure is nothing like online coursework.

     “…their attitude was “fire and forget”; build the e-learning as a one-off project and just get it out of the door, fast.”


      Here, the author “gets” what higher education has done with e-learning. Constantly updating and changing an online curriculum would require keeping your workers around, instead firing them once they’ve built your software. The latter method gathers profits more easily, so you can guess which method higher education chose…

      However, my e-learning training started with the guys who build it for the UK and US military and global corporations – and they can prove that their stuff works before you deploy it. They can do this because they use a recipe that builds a particular structure; one that’s not only proven to be educationally effective, it’s maintainable and scalable.


     This is important to point out: the protocol for learning here is not some crackpot theory, it’s what institutions that really care about learning use. I’m no fan of the US military, but I’m sure they want their combat replacements heroic soldiers to know, and know completely, how exactly to use a $35,000,000 piece of equipment in the field…so you have to make certain your simulators and training really, really, work, before that soldier gets to the field to use that equipment while other human beings are quite conceivably trying to kill him.

     If you cast your mind back, to when compulsory education was introduced, you’ll remember that learning by rote (i.e. continually repeating the same thing) was an important part of the education system. Moving forward, as educators have tried to “engage learners” to be more enthusiastic about “education”, rote learning has mysteriously fallen by the wayside. 


      Ah, there is nothing new under the sun. For thousands of years, humans learned basic things by repetition. Yes, it’s dreary, and no, it’s not particularly fun. But, honest, the way to learn the ABC’s is the repeat them over and over again. It’s guaranteed to work, and even Educationists aren’t so ridiculous as to try to “whole word” the alphabet (yet). You’re never going to learn the 12th letter of the alphabet by “intuition” or any of that Bloom’s Taxonomy garbage that Educationists slobber over. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat…that’s how you memorize, and it’s the base of learning.

       Any of my gentle readers with a child will realize the way to teach that child anything is repetition. Show me one child who learned how to tie his shoes in exactly one try, for example...you show the child every day for a month or two how to do it. And yet the goobers that run education take repetition out of school. If parents really knew how bad it was, there would be rioting. Of course, rioting seems to be pretty common today, by people that don’t know how bad the thing is that has been done to them and their children…

“…E-learning allows learners to learn by rote, …”


      Recall when I investigated Administration degree programs, it was glaring how none of the coursework relied on any previous coursework, how there was never any opportunity to build on anything. Thus, I could casually take an 8000 level Administration course without difficulty, just by following along with the light reading. This is so different than how it works in legitimate academic disciplines.

      For example, calculus students learn about something called “the derivative” in their very first calculus course. They’ll be using the derivative in Calculus 2 and Calculus 3 (not that there are any “second” and “third” administration courses). They’ll have to take derivatives in differential equations, too…and in theoretical probability courses. There is lots of repetition there. It’s simply impossible to walk into 2000-level differential equations and do well, without having already practiced, repeatedly, the skills developed in the earlier courses.

      The point being, there’s plenty of repetition in the sciences, and it’s not an accident at all, the coursework really is designed that way (something you can do with faculty in the department, instead of disjointed adjuncts). It’s why it’s tough to cheat and get a degree in sciences—once you cheat your way through a course, you have to cheat through every course past that point (although, to be honest, I see students that clearly cheated their way through three or four courses before they finally come to my class, and it ends…sometimes).

     Anyway, that’s the big key here, the “great innovation” of using what we know works, what has worked for thousands of years, and what institutions that care about learning use.

This enables you to deliver random versions of the same tests to different students and to the same students, across different Modules. However, the larger the course gets, the more times a student will encounter identical questions and this is a form of rote learning that helps them to actually get the content into their heads.


     In “accredited” coursework, it doesn’t work like this. You take a single test, based on a single module (“module” is edu-speak for “chunk of material,” like a chapter of a book). You pass that online test (and it’s just a goofy multiple choice test, often one you can take repeatedly with only the highest score kept), and you never see the material again. This is why there is no learning in online coursework. You’re as likely to remember and functionally be able to use the material from one of these courses are you are to remember in detail the items on a restaurant menu you only saw once, six months ago.

Anyway, back to the point, the “ideal” result for the test of a test, is that a bell-shaped curve of correct answers is achieved.


     Again, this goal is nothing like in so-called legitimate, “accredited” schools. In “accredited” coursework, that’s not the ideal result at all. Institutions don’t want a bell curve, they want all A’s. Yes, in theory, I want all A’s for my students too…but I also want a degree, an special indication that the student has done something impressive, to be noticed. When everyone is special, no one is.

      So, in accredited coursework after the semester, here’s what we do:  we look at the questions, and look to see what questions students found hard. We remove those questions, and then try to remove the underlying material, hacking off chunk after chunk of the course until we get material that everyone can do. Over the course of a decade, we’ve done a pretty good job, and so the courses don’t change so much anymore. You don’t get a bell curve this way, you get a bunch of A’s (anyone not brain damaged and trying), a bunch of F’s (mostly students that signed up for Pell Grant free money, and never tried), and a few grades in between.

      I grant, hacking off material isn’t much of a new idea in education. If you look at class textbooks from a century ago, it’s very, very, clear that much, much, less is covered in school today than what we used to cover. There really needs to be a “Museum of Old Classwork”, with new exhibitions every year, showing current coursework in classes today, along with, year by year, decade by decade, what used to be taught in schools. 

      I beg the gentle reader, the next time he passes by yet another museum devoted to some war or other, to consider why we don’t have museums that would show people exactly what happened to them in the past, and what’s happening to their children today, in terms of education. I conjecture it’s because all the rioting would be bad for society…but how’s all the ignorance working out?

      Anyway, no, accredited institutions don’t want bell shaped curves of answers, they want all A grades. It’s why the average college grade is A-, after all.

      In the legitimate model, if you don’t get a bell shaped curve on the answers, you change the question/answers and material until you do. In other words, the legitimate model is the opposite of accredited learning models. I’ll leave the gentle reader to consider the legitimacy of accredited learning models.

Notice some things, given this type of setup: First, you can tweak the e-learning to show any type of learner response curve you like.


      This, alas, is the real problem with e-learning. You can tweak it to get any results you want. Thus, I acknowledge that in theory you can tweak it to be legitimate. Unfortunately, higher education has tweaked it to be bogus. Because accreditation, in turn, is bogus, there’s nothing that can be done about it.

     The learner is building up a fractal (of closed areas of electrical resistance), in the structure of their brain, and so another rate-limiting factor to individual learning is the amount of logical pre-requisites and / or already ingrained bad habits that the learner has (the latter being part of the “direction” component of a learner’s velocity). So a “Three Mode” system is common in the e-learning industry: “Show me”, “Let me try” and “Test me”.


      I’ve tried to avoid the slightly more technical parts of the discussion, but the above touches on a key idea of learning: it’s not a simple, linear, process, and it cannot be measured in a simple, linear way. Thus, there is more to learning than just rote memorization…memorization is just the basic, very first step, without which you usually have nothing. Accredited learning models eliminate the first step, then cover up their fundamental flaw with a generous grading scale.

      Since learning is so complicated, administrators and educationists, with their very simple degree programs designed so everyone can get that special Administration/Education degree, just don’t have the tools to attempt to understand even part of it. The student loan scam punishes schools that try to have any actual learning, and thus this sort of e-learning protocol is trashed instantly, in exchange for something very simple, something that produces high grades….and teaches nothing to anyone.

Finally, e-learning doesn’t work if it’s out of date: In order to work, any e-learning has to be authoritative and should lead on timeliness. A continuing professional development strategy is now considered essential in any e-learning plan, so you’ll need to consider how you’re going to keep your teams / students sharp.


      Again, this is alien to higher education, which insists on using the same tests, same questions, year in and year out. It doesn’t matter that there are sites that sell you the answers to those questions or take the whole course for you; admin simply looks at the ever increasing passing rate and says “the online course is getting even more successful!”. As I said before, having a team constantly working on improving the product would cut into profits, so…not gonna happen.

     The discussion of legitimate e-learning ends with a 15 point system. I don’t know if it’s perfect, and I bet it could stand some simplification. I admit that maybe e-learning is possible, but, the fact still remains, you’ll never see anything this legitimate in an accredited school. This system cuts into the student loan money, which is now the only reason for a school to get accreditation.