Cost-effectiveness of larger and online courses endangers educational quality

“Sometimes online classes are so easy that I don’t put a lot of work into them,” said Cory Van Duyne, a junior who took CHLH 243: Drug Use and Abuse online. “In the end, you’re not really learning much because you have so much access to the internet while you’re taking an exam.” 

While experts agree that online courses can be designed to ensure educational quality, not all courses appear to be designed that way, and UI admits it has no central structure to ensure quality. According to Vice Provost Kevin Pitts, decisions on whether a course is sufficiently rigorous are left to the very same departments that have financial incentives for making courses bigger or moving them online.

Natasha Jankowski, Director, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment​

However, online isn’t the problem, experts say. 

“If not supported and designed for students, it will be just as ineffective as a poorly designed face-to-face course,” said Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment located in the College of Education at UI. 

While course designers insist newly created online courses at UI are properly designed and supported, key members of faculty governance are not fully convinced. 

“The risk is that you are designing it because you want something that is inexpensive but brings in a lot of students, and that means that you are very likely to cut corners and the quality of the course will suffer,” said Bettina Francis, chair of the UI Senate Executive Committee and an associate professor in entomology. 

In the end, it isn’t the medium, but the methods.

“To achieve gains in student outcomes, we must do more than just deliver the course through a different medium,” said Thomas L. Russel, director emeritus of the Office of Instructional Telecommunications at North Carolina State University. 

Online can be effective if content is adequately adapted, Russel’s research concludes. Jankowski agrees. 

“You need to really craft what is this online course experience, how do we support, what does feedback look like online, how you have interaction between your learners in an online environment,” she said. “Well, it’s incredibly doable, and it works just fine.” 

Ten years ago, according to Jason Mock, assistant director at the UI Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning, online classes allowed students to submit all of their work on the last day of class and receive credit. Today’s online courses are structured to be more like face-to-face courses, with assignments due during the week. 

Jason Mock, Assistant Director, Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning at University of Illinois

Although deadlines have been designed to mimic those of a face-to-face course, many other face-to-face features, such as synchronous learning environments and proctoring of quizzes and exams, are not present in all online courses at UI.

For students like Van Duyne in CHLH 243: Drug Use and Abuse, synchronous learning would have helped. 

“When I’m required to meet with my group, I actually feel like I have a lot to do and prove in the class opposed to meeting online,” Van Duyne said. 

Undergraduates also find it relatively easy to cheat on online quizzes and exams, whether offered in online courses or in face-to-face courses that feature online testing. 

According to Mock, UI offers a proctoring service called ProctorU, which requires students to use their computers’ web cameras to show that others are not in the room and that no notes are used when they take tests. 


Advanced courses such as ECON 302: Intermediate Microeconomic Theory require students to take exams through ProctorU, which charges students from $8.75 to $30.25, depending on the amount of time for which proctoring is needed, according to UI webpage

Not all courses with online testing require students to take exams through ProctorU, however.

Without proctoring, students can ease the burden of course work by using resources such as web searches to figure out answers on tests.

“They have Quizlet answers that we can access and get the answers for these quizzes,” Van Duyne said.

Many students actively search for “easy” courses. “Easy Classes at U of I !!!!” is a Facebook group with nearly 16,000 members. Students write posts asking each other about “easy” courses offered at UI.

Easy gen-ed courses are most often sought. Although not all easy gen-ed courses are taught online or in large lecture halls, some (like ECON 102: Microeconomic Principles) are taught in Foellinger Auditorium, which has more than 1,000 seats. 

Freshman Karley Crady is taking the course. Although taught face-to-face, all testing is done online, and the final exam is optional. Crady has a 102% grade in the course.

“On the high stakes (quizzes), it might say not to use the internet as, like, a help, but there’s no proctoring of your computer screen or anything, so we do them in groups,” Crady said. “I have four friends that are in it; we all sit down together and do the high stakes quizzes together.”

Courses online or in large lecture halls can make it hard for professors to provide ideal learning environments.“It is difficult to have a personal connection with 100 students,” Senate Executive Committee chair Bettina Francis said.

Maryalice Wu, director of data analytics at the Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning, also has concerns with large class sizes.“When you get above [50 or 60 students] it gets harder, and it doesn’t matter what the platform is. It just gets harder,” Wu said.

Vice Provost Pitts admitted that 1,000-student classes posed challenges.“Is that as good as 50 sections of 20 students per section?” he said. “That’s a resource thing.”

Large courses pose other concerns for some students, but they often dismiss these concerns because good graded tend to be easier to get.

“I find it really hard to focus,” Crady said of her Foellinger Auditorium economics course. “I’m lucky enough that I don’t really need to focus on this class because it is a very easy A, but I think if I was taking something harder, I think it would be a lot harder to focus with 900 kids in there.”

Without active participation or discussion, either online or in person, students can passively sit in a lecture hall and browse the Internet instead of focusing on a lecture. 

In Crady’s class, students stop only when their attention is required, such as answering a question through Top Hat, an online platform.

“You have to have your laptop out, and you can tell once a Top Hat question pops up, people move to that browser and answer the question and go back to doing whatever they were going to do because you don’t get any credit for getting the right or wrong answer, so it doesn’t really like affect you what you say,” Crady said.

Some students don’t even attend. Friends in the class simply text them a code number to enter and they answer the Top Hat question from wherever they may be.

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