Confessions of an Online School Dropout

I have a confession that I’ve been holding on to for a long time: I’m an online school drop-out.

I’m not the only one, and I think I know why.

In 2011 when Udacity, Coursera, and EdX launched the MOOC (massively open online course) movement, online learning was seen as a way to bring U.S. Ivy League education to the masses.

For a while this was true and I initially bought into the idea, successfully completing the Johns Hopkins course “Computing for Data Analysis”. In fact, I used this course as a training program to develop the discipline for pursuing a distance-only Master of Public Health.

Since MOOCs first launched, the shine has dulled. As enrollment skyrockets, completion is plummeting. Many reports and studies peg the completion rates as low as 4% and as high as 15%. These troubling trends of low completion persist into 2019, suggesting the model is broken.

Supporters of MOOCs and online learning say focusing on completion rates is unfair, since most students “audit” the course, so we should look at the success of people who do complete the courses. However, even students who persist or stay with the class aren’t passing.

Researchers discovered that most MOOC students are men from affluent nations. And another team of researchers discovered 6 reasons online students drop out:

  1. no time
  2. no motivation
  3. limited knowledge
  4. limited interactivity
  5. hidden costs, and
  6. feelings of isolation

This last reason of isolation matches my experience as an online learner. In fact, it’s telling that as course providers regroup, they are tackling isolation first.

Social isolation in a virtual environment is such a persistent problem that millionaire tech entrepreneurs are beginning to discover the downside of lean, remote organizations.

Leo Widrich, founder of the social media startup Buffer, wrote about his experience as a “virtual CEO”. He discovered what so many remote workers know first hand: social isolation leads to burnout. Working at co-working spaces or coffee shops isn’t enough to help.

In fact, because I have so much shame and stigma about my experience, it took me nearly two weeks to muster the courage to write the next part. But it’s a story worth telling, because it’s a common experience.

In 2012, after leaving my first job after college, I moved home to Alaska, and started a graduate program in Public Health. Despite this program being housed at a university 30 minutes from my home, the program was “100% distance delivered” or online.

On the surface, this was great! This meant I didn’t have to attend evening classes after a long day of work, and I could plan my coursework around my life. It also was great, because the program focused on arctic issues relevant to Alaska, and students were from across the state (and some were doing field work in south Sudan). How exciting!

Over time, the coursework became a drag: instead of participating in meaningful class discussions, I “gamed” my participation so my contributions were unique enough to get participation credit.

Despite being graduate-level, most comments were at a superficial level or about topics that had no relevance to my then-professional experience as a health educator.

For two years, I logged on to discussion boards to read comments from individuals I never met in person and maintained good grades. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything. In this way the University of Alaska was no different from Southern New Hampshire University.

At this point, I maxed out credit cards to pay for classes and had to make a decision: Do I continue with this program or try something else?

What I realize now, is that the lack of genuine human connection impacted my ability to stay motivated and engaged with the material. Social isolation led me to drop out of that program.

Three years later, I discovered a different graduate program offered by a school 1,500 miles away. For the next year and a half, 39 strangers and I followed a sequence of classes as a cohort of students, driving or flying into Seattle monthly for a 3-day course weekend.

It was a distance program, so we received materials and submitted assignments online. It was also “blended” or “hybrid”, so we physically attended classes and formed meaningful connections with the same group of students. People were thoughtful and the material was relevant.

So in one world, I spent two years making slow progress toward a degree with no connections to my peers. And in the other world, I spent less time and actually completed a degree.

What was the difference? Human connection.

This reinforces the idea that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

It seems trite, cliché, or fuzzy to say it, but it’s true: having people with whom you physically share an experience, makes it more likely that you’ll remember and enjoy that experience.

When personal learning isn’t life or death

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Let’s say you’re newly hired at a clinic as a nurse or doctor? Not every hospital or clinic has the same approach to care, so how will you get up to speed?

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Clip from ABC’s Blackish (S5E17, Each One Teach One)

In the ABC TV show Blackish, Dr. Rainbow Johnson says: “Mentoring, Dre. It’s about bringing along the next generation. In the medical field, we have a little saying, ‘You see one, you do one, you teach one.’ Okay?!”

Your clinic will also use the “See One, Do One, Teach One” approach:

As a learner, you will watch your supervisor or another proficient peer perform a technique.

Later you’ll perform that same technique with minimal supervision.

And then after you successfully and repeatedly master the skill you’ll teach others that same technique.

As an experience, “See One, Do One, Teach One” seems fast and friendly.

Even though I saw this happen at the clinics where I worked, I didn’t know the concept had a name until I attended a meeting at a nearby community health center. New providers are paired with experienced providers so that they can learn this health center’s approach.

“See One, Do One, Teach One” is great when you’re bringing a novice up to speed with new, frequent, “do-able” techniques.

Even experienced professionals have something to learn from this approach.

Also, if you enjoy learning by doing, it’s practical: you get to roll up your sleeves, do something, and receive immediate feedback. If you experience haphazard Annual Performance Reviews, you also crave observable, real-time feedback.

However, “See One, Do One, Teach One” doesn’t work as well for knowledge workers or solo practitioners like me, especially if we’re part of a remote team, or the only person with our job.

Do you have questions, like I do?

Who do I shadow? Even though my coworkers meet monthly virtually to reflect on scenarios and opportunities for feedback in the future.

Which tasks are frequent enough to practice? Especially since my work is unique, interpersonal, and facilitative.

Even more questions remain: How do I get real-time feedback? Is it appropriate to video record collaborative coalition meetings for coaching? Should I turn on voice memos during one-on-one fundraising visits? How can I gain “muscle memory” for novel, one-time activities?

 

Even within the medical field, there’s a growing opinion that “See One, Do One, Teach One” is too risky for both the patient while provider tries their hand at new medical practices for rare conditions.

Some young health care providers and tech professionals predictably suggest embracing Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) simulations as the 21st-century approach to this dilemma.

 

Ok. Cool story bro.

As someone close to health care, I see how tech-heavy approaches like telemedicine and remote surgery are helpful for patients far from major hospitals. However, they’re expensive, unproven, and obsolete by the time they’re cheaper or tested.

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Computerized simulation dummies at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing (via bcheights.com)

Many nursing and medical schools are using fancy “dummies”—similar to how you learn CPR. This is valuable, because students get to actively learn standard techniques without harming a patient.

But if you aren’t a pilot, nurse, doctor, artist, or tradesperson, how can you achieve mastery in unique circumstances?

For almost a century, many management and law schools teach with case studies.

Case Teaching is for when there is no right answer.

Remember in The Matrix, how Neo learned kung fu in a simulation?

Case studies are like mental simulations. Or “management fiction” that increases empathy. Much like in the medical world, a downside to case teaching is that they have limited value outside well-trodden scenarios or with unique  techniques. Additionally, they can take months to research and months to prepare for use in a learning environment.

 

So how can remote workers like you and I learn better? How do you create your own personal learning environment?

 

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Austin Kleon says “showing your work”* is the best solution many solo practitioners like myself have outside of classrooms or VR simulations. We get the benefit of reflective practice. You can reflect on dilemmas, seek outside perspective, and document your learning for the future. This article is an example of doing just that!

 

Three key elements of an effective reflective practice for personal learning are:

  • Journal or regularly document your challenges or dilemmas.
  • Show Your Work or share how you think with others.
  • Seek and be open to immediate feedback from your peers, coaches, or trusted advisors.

This regular reflective practice, will create mental muscle memory to move your learning from your head, into your body, and ultimately, into the world.

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*When I link to books at Amazon, I use their affiliate links. This helps me stay caffeinated and productive writing essays like this.