Teaching and Justice

Who is Learning Online?

by Sandy Gambill, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

When I signed up to write this blog post, I thought it would be a simple matter of finding some statistics and framing them in the context of the Reinert Center’s annual theme– justice. After several false starts, I can tell you it was not that simple.

There was no difficulty in finding statistics. Enrollment data reported to the federal government in fall 2016 indicates that 13% of all undergraduate students and 28% of all graduate students in the US exclusively take online courses. Students who take both online and face to face courses make up 18% of all undergrads and 9% of all graduate students.  Combined that tells us that 41% of undergrads and 37% of graduate students have taken online courses.

What the statistics don’t tell us is much about the motivation of these students–why are they taking online courses? I’m sure you can list reasons like flexibility and convenience, but  how does that square when we think about justice? When I think about distance education, I’m excited by framing justice in terms of access. Online learning provides access to education that many people would not otherwise have. This means opening the opportunity for better paying jobs and different ways of looking at the world.

Think about that 13% of undergrads who take all their courses online. I wonder how many of them fall into the category of adult learners. Many institutions offer online degree programs to adult learners, and limit traditional undergrads to the traditional classroom. For example, according to their website, SLU’s School for Professional Studies (link https://www.slu.edu/online/index.php) requires students to be over the age of 22 and have had at least three years of work experience.

It’s easy for me to relate to that group because I was one of those students.  I was well into my 30s and working full time, when I did an online Masters degree program that allowed me to advance in my career.  I wasn’t in a position to leave my job to go to school, and couldn’t find a traditional program that was flexible enough to fit my schedule.

There is a long tradition of working adults taking correspondence, and now distance courses, hoping for better jobs and higher pay. If you were a fan of Downton Abbey, you might remember the character Gwen Harding, a housemaid who took correspondence courses to learn to type, and was able to leave service to become a secretary. That story line was historically accurate. The first well-documented correspondence course began around 1840 when Isaac Pittman offered stenography courses through the UK’s Penny Post system. (Britain’s Uniform Penny Post Act of 1840 created affordable prepaid postage through the issuance of the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black. See the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_Black for more on this.)

What about adult students who want access to education to learn one new skill or connect intellectually with others? MOOCS (Massive Online Open Courses) aren’t as trendy as they were a few years ago since no one has really figured out how to monetize the model, but Coursera and EdX, the most popular MOOC platforms, still have a few thousand free courses on everything from 18th Century Opera to Justice, the Harvard course taught by Michael Sandel.  I don’t think you can discount the impact one of these courses could have on someone’s life, whether they’re trying to improving their accounting knowledge, or enrich their personal time by connecting with others interested in postmodern European literature. Sometimes learning for the sheer joy of learning is a powerful motivation.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the students in MOOCs are motivated by the same forces that drove students to enroll in the televised courses taught by Father John Francis Bannon, SJ, of SLU’s History Department. KETC, aka Channel 9, started broadcasting in 1954 and by 1955, Father Bannon was on the air, teaching “The Great American West to 1848,” the same course he taught for students matriculating at SLU. This was the first of several courses he taught over the KETC airwaves.

I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the artifacts from Father Bannon’s televised courses in Saint Louis University archives. Syllabi for the Father Bannon’s courses were sixty page booklets that included detailed instructions to the students, in addition to printed versions of the lectures and supplemental reading lists. They proclaim: “You are becoming involved in an experiment in education which is still in its infancy, college credit courses by television. Perhaps, your experience can contribute in very valuable fashion to the growing fund of data regarding the validity and practicality of this great new potential medium of organized learning. In all, events, it is our hope that you enjoy and profit by the experience.” Students in these courses had the opportunity to attend live discussion sessions and then if they wanted credit, take an exam in a room on the first floor of Du Bourg Hall.

Little demographic information is available about Bannon’s students. A 1957 Jesuit Bulletin article asserts that Bannon “counts his students in ten and twenty thousands.” While this is probably an overstatement, the courses were distributed across the United States as part of National Education Television and Radio Center Network. The article says the shows were used by public and private high schools of St Louis, and that Bannon frequently had requests for his reading lists from public libraries in other cities where the shows were available. Predictably, he also faced questions from other faculty members about what he was doing and why he was doing it.

When we think about undergrads taking online courses, the issue of motivation seems murkier. Are they trying to fit in required courses that otherwise don’t work into their schedules? Are they taking an online course somewhere they think it will be easier than at their residential institution? Did they fail the course and are trying to fit in a convenient do-over?  Are they go-getters, doing everything they can to graduate quickly? Is justice different for these students?

If we look at teaching as situational and context driven, I have a challenge for you. Ask your students why they’re in the course. This could be a discussion board  icebreaker, or if you want to give students the privacy to disclose to you things they may not want to say to their classmates, ask them in a journal post or paper assignment the first week of class. Their responses might help you form a more just course by modifying times assignments are due, selecting readings more applicable to their lives and interests, or simply by showing that you care about them as an individual. In a future blog post, I’ll explore these strategies and other pedagogical tips for making your course more just.



The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE)Chloe 2 Report:


Mackenzie, O. (1971) The Changing World of Correspondence Study. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press