Scaling higher education – the teacher presence conundrum

Terry Anderson refers to a recent study by Tomkin and Charlevoix  into whether teacher presence makes any difference to students on a MOOC.  The findings are, at first glance, encouraging to those of us who are keen to see higher education being made more accessible to learners on a global scale: according to the abstract, ‘instructor intervention had no statistically significant impact on overall completion rates, overall badge acquisition rates, student participation rates, or satisfaction with the course…’

This is indeed good news, since it is the costliness of teacher presence that precludes traditional university offerings from being significantly scaled up. However, without a profile of the students who provided the data for this study, I think it’s difficult to draw conclusions from it. The paper is sadly neither open access nor available through my university library, and so I was only able to read the abstract. However, what we know from the evidence on MOOCs to date is that most participants already have undergraduate degrees and live in relatively well-resourced regions. These beneficiaries of the MOOC movement are not the masses in developing countries who would not ordinarily have access to higher education – they are, in global terms, a privileged audience. What we don’t know yet is whether the same findings would be replicated in a study where the participants are drawn from those estimated hundred million potential undergraduates in developing countries, who are likely to have less experience of formal education and lower levels of digital and academic literacies – not to mention higher expectations of teacher presence based on their previous experience of education.

Ironically, these findings are therefore more valuable to universities offering online postgraduate degree courses to fee-paying students than to institutions aiming to widen participation to a more diverse, less well-off student body. As I have one foot in each of these camps, my takeaway from this research is therefore in relation to the ‘traditional’ online courses I am involved in. (I tutor on an online MA programme and I support academics in a range of disciplines to design and deliver online learning.) One of the most frequently expressed concerns in the learning design workshops I run for academics revolves around the posited additional time required by tutors in giving feedback to students when you give students more opportunities to interact online, for example through discussion forum or blogging tasks. (In fact this is often used as a reason not to give students interactive tasks: ‘Who is going to manage/ monitor/ provide feedback on all that interaction?’) What these findings suggest is that students would not necessarily gain any additional benefit from teacher input in these forums, as long as they were given a well-designed learning environment with well-structured tasks, opportunities for peer interaction, and access to good materials.

So far so good for traditional distance education. As for those learners in developing countries, I’m still not sure whether we’re any the wiser.

About Gabi Witthaus

Open educator. Blogger at Art of E-learning. Learning design consultant at University of Birmingham. PhD student in HE Research, Evaluation and Enhancement, Lancaster University. Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Learning and Teaching Facilitator at Loughborough University; Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Qualifications: Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa), PGC in Mediation (Robert Gordon, Scotland), BA Hons in Applied Linguistics (Wits University, South Africa).
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1 Response to Scaling higher education – the teacher presence conundrum

  1. Gabi – thanks for the post. As I was reading your blog, two things came to mind. The first was an article by Anderson – “Getting the mix right” ( which, although written in 2003, still has relevance to the kind of issues you raise in the blog. The other article which I think may have relevance is the article by Anderson and McGreal (2012)( in which they refer to the possibility for “no thrills” qualification and teaching. I think we are still some way off to fully understand the complexities in student success and retention – where delivering institutions must negotiate conflicting desires and needs. Often the students who can benefit the most from teacher presence (in whatever format) do not optimise the opportunities in contrast to students who actually do not need teacher presence but who enjoy the stimulation and confirmation.

    In distance education we also need to balance the (lately disputed notion) of the iron triangle of cost, scalability/access and quality. I also wonder whether our obsession with teacher presence is not a leftover from the misplaced beliefs that classroom teaching is necessarily better than different delivery models?


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