Q&A: Dangerous trends in online education

Answer: One trend that could come back to bite online schools is actually a cluster of trends that doesn't have a single name, but could be called decoupling.

Let me explain. In a traditional college classroom, instructors usually choose their own textbooks. And good speakers or bad, they wrote their own lectures. They wrote their own tests. Regardless of their skill levels, there was an organic connection between the instructor and what was taught: they always knew why something was in a course, what its goals were, and what its function was.

Many online courses are standardized. This means faculty members don't choose their own textbooks. In many cases, the schools select a faculty member in-house, who writes a course that is then used by everyone teaching that class. As online schools become bigger business, though, more materials are written by outsiders. On the plus side, this gives schools a chance to offer materials from experts they could never afford to hire to teach at their school in person.

Yet on the contrary, this form of standardization can be challenging for some teachers. For example, the instructor might not like the text. He or she might not agree with the materials. If the test is graded by computer, with software handled by outside providers, the teacher might not know why your test is graded the way it is, and again, might not be able to find anyone to ask. Decoupling might mean you get a lecture from a Nobel Prize winner instead of your instructor… but it might also mean gaps and confusion if not handled correctly.

Greg BeattyGreg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and over twenty years experience in higher education. He’s taught everything from standardized test prep courses and freshman orientation and composition courses on up to serving on doctoral committees. He’s taught in the traditional classroom, correspondence courses, online courses, and hybrid courses. He’s developed curriculum for several colleges (sometimes as sole author, sometimes working collaboratively), and served as a textbook manuscript reviewer for Longman. He’s won grants for course development, and awards for his teaching. Greg has mentored new teachers and co-taught workshops on teaching excellence. He’s also served on a range of committees and college advisory boards, and has served as an area chair for humanities.