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Unsafe At Any Speed? Seatbelts For Online Learning

In early January I received the sad news that a college friend had passed away at the untimely age of 46. Although I’ve never mentioned him in this Letter, I’ve been tempted on many occasions. Shohei “Speed” Kuga was the most colorful character I’ve ever known.

In relaying the news, his college roommate said, “It would not be accurate to say that Speed was a good roommate.” Which is par for the course when you’re talking about someone who was famous on campus for flashing the Bat Signal from Harkness Tower, or describing the consistency of his drool in a campus publication. Or someone who badgered me for a week in June 1992 until I allowed him to make a color copy of my summer programs dining hall card so he could eat for free all summer. But Speed was generous, too. Like making additional counterfeit dining hall cards, all with his name. Which was awkward, recounts another friend, “when I showed up at the dining hall and the card checker said ‘the other Shohei Kuga just came through and he’s sitting right there.’”

It would be particularly inaccurate to say that Speed was a good newspaper editor. Before college, Speed was responsible for the operating budget of one of America’s most respected high school newspapers. With a dream of printing in color, Speed decided to begin day-trading the newspaper’s $20,000 budget. His fellow editors and advisor were excited as Speed began recording big gains. Speed’s confidence turned to cockiness and before long he had everything riding on a single over-the-counter (OTC) Philippine stock called Manilla Paper Company. Cue October 1987 AKA Black Monday. Here’s what Speed had to say about that via a contemporaneous account:

I was watching CNBC and Manilla Paper was doing fine, about $27 a share. Then all of a sudden: WHOOSH. It dropped a couple of points. I’m saying, ‘Hello!’ So I called my broker and said, “Just start dumping, please,” but their response was, “We’re trying but nobody’s buying!” At the end of the day, the stock had dropped to $0.75. Our 900 shares had dropped from $25,000 to about $700.

Despite threats of expulsion, lawsuits, and a vindictive principal set on convincing Yale to rescind its offer of admission, Speed made out OK. Which led to his personal motto: “You can get away with almost anything if you have the right legal backup.” Or almost anything, if his kidneys had permitted. Ave atque vale, Speed. You lived fast, as advertised.

Online learning reminds me of my departed friend: gets a lot of attention, but not always safe. Last weekend in the New York Times, Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan wrote an op-ed titled “Online Courses Are Harming The Students Who Need the Most Help.” Professor Dynarski pointed to DeVry University, which offers campus-based and online versions of many of its courses: “Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.” Indeed, given that only a fraction of enrolled online students successfully complete regardless of whether it’s a fast MOOC or a slow degree program, online education can be fairly termed UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED.

It’s no wonder that online learning is unsafe. Online degree programs like DeVry’s in which more than 3 million students are enrolled are primarily text-based, translated from traditional on-ground college courses in such a literal manner that it’s almost robotic: read material, participate in discussion, submit weekly assignment. (I almost fell asleep just writing that.) The MOOCs and not-for-credit courses aren’t much better. And so completion rates are abysmal, prompting prominent researchers to question the point of 100% online programs.

There are two primary reasons for poor completion rates in online courses and programs. The first is engagement. Engagement is hard in a wholly asynchronous online environment. (Adding required synchronous sessions to an online program, as 2U has famously done, goes a long way to making online safer.) The second is that life tends to get in the way, much more than with an on-ground program. The downside of being able to attend in your pajamas is that you can be interrupted at any minute, or simply decide to surf to another site, or turn away from the screen. And when you drop out, you’re worse off than if you’d never enrolled – out of time and money, with no credential.

In a decade or two, when we look back at this era of online learning, it will feel anachronistic – like watching TV shows and movies from the 60s and 70s showing driving without seatbelts, little kids in the front seat. Fortunately, we now have seatbelts for asynchronous online learning, and people (and kids) are starting to use them.

Seatbelt #1: Engagement

The most easily-fixed element of online education’s flawed trinity is the discussion board. If you’ve ever participated in an online course discussion, you know that contributions are poorly structured and wildly disparate, but typically lacking in anything remotely resembling insight. They’re about as engaging as the article Speed wrote about his drool.

The engagement seatbelt I’m most excited about is Packback Questions. Packback integrates with the LMS and significantly increases engagement in online discussions by coaching students to improve their responses, and – more important – to ask more thought-provoking questions, sparking better discussion and critical thinking. Packback accomplishes this through a series of structured templates and algorithms that assess critical thinking in written content, as well as by gamifying the discussion with a leaderboard based on “curiosity points.” Based on how the course is progressing, Packback provides recommendations to faculty on how to further improve engagement.

Seatbelt #2: Assessment

Few colleges and universities offering online programs think of assessment as a vehicle for increasing student engagement, but it should be. Not only can assignments and formative assessments be structured to foster active learning, but online summative assessments are also a tool for engagement. Adel Lelo, Senior Manager of Assessment Solutions at Western Governors University, believes high quality, high security online proctoring solutions like Examity increase engagement in online programs because students can take a high-stakes assessment just as soon as they’re ready (not to mention saving the drive to the test center). In addition, online proctoring signals to students that online assessments are worth taking seriously, and that students should take them seriously as well. Says Lelo, “Online proctoring means we are protecting the integrity of the assessment. Our students understand this means we’re protecting the integrity of the program and the degree. There’s a huge benefit to that.”

Seatbelt #3: Motivation

For many online students, the level of engagement while they’re online is beside the point when there’s a major deadline at work, or a family member gets sick. A long-term project like a multi-year online degree program drops quickly down the list of priorities. Which means missed attendance and assignments, falling behind, and for far too many, giving up.

Keeping students focused on long-term goals isn’t the natural habitat of instructional designers or online faculty. But it can make the difference between completion and dropping out. Motimatic is my favorite motivational seatbelt. It’s a behavioral science-based solution that sends tailored messages to online students where they live i.e., across a range of digital platforms, on desktop and mobile. Messages can remind students of their long term goals. And at some university partners, Motimatic provides gentle reminders of upcoming assignments. Most important, it appears to have a significant positive effect on student persistence.

Seatbelt #4: Re-enrollment

Less a seatbelt than a first responder following an accident, ReUp Educationre-engages, re-enrolls, and supports students who’ve left online programs. In 2017, ReUp re-enrolled over 3,000 online students who had given up and dropped out. Unless you don’t believe in second chances, re-enrollment should be the final element of your online program’s safety plan.

Last week we lost another 46-year-old: Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries. I have a fond memory of seeing the Cranberries perform in 1995 at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side of New York. There was no mosh pit; it wasn’t exactly Speed’s speed. But for me, Dolores’ Celtic lilt suspended above jangling guitars signified that 90s music could be about more than Grunge. And like Speed, Dolores went much too quickly.

My favorite Cranberries song – one they performed that night – is the haunting Ode to My Family:

Understand the things I say

Don’t turn away from me

‘Cause I spent half my life out there

You wouldn’t disagree

D’you see me, d’you see

Do you like me, do you like me standing there

D’you notice, d’you know

Do you see me, do you see me

Does anyone care?

Speed and Dolores would want us to know that life is precious. While we’re here, we must notice, see, and care. And in higher education, that’s true regardless of whether someone is on campus or online. If colleges and universities care about their online students, the least they can do is to make them wear seatbelts.

Originally featured in Forbes.