Friday, August 08, 2008

"Online teaching at my institution is a scam"

One thing I really like about the AAPT is that people use all of the classroom techniques that they are discussing in their presentations. So the session on teaching online, the always engaging Andrew Carpenter, featured small group work. In my group a gentleman in a blue shirt opened by voicing the exact concern that I have had about online teaching at a huge number of institutions, including perhaps LCCC: (paraphrasing) "You need to have some mechanisms to insure that people who take online courses are actually self motivated enough to finish them. Online at my institution is a scam. We have a fifty to sixty percent dropout rate. Students seek out these courses because they think they will be easier, and then they can't get their act together enough to finish the course."

This is a big deal. Right now students in online courses as self selected to be the exact kind of students who would do badly in them. They are signing up because they have time management issues. Either they are too unmotivated or too busy. Further, since online teaching is marketed to lower income and returning students, you are targeting people who are on the other side of the digital divide. I really the boosters of online teaching in administration and IT would address this issue.

ok, to the next talk.


Breena Ronan said...

You didn't mention the other side of the equation, which is that the people who teach online may be the least well paid and motivated of all of academia. This varies a lot depending on the institution and the situation, but online teaching is not generally well paying. Teaching an online course well might actually take more hours than a conventional course.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

That's a very good point. I know a lot of people regard online adjuncting as the lowest-status level of academic employment. Given how dead set administrators are on increasing reliance on online teaching, something has to change soon about how the whole thing is approached.

Anonymous said...

Ahem. Speaking as a ridiculously busy, lowish-income 40-year-old single mother, I wish you'd leave the online-teaching people alone.

I take online courses because I'm likely to be doing the work at 2 am. Do I finish the courses within one semester? Not always. Sometimes it takes two. Welcome to realities of going to school while supporting a family and refusing to go into debt. I won't properly start this semester's calc class, for instance, until early December. Occasionally it takes longer. A while back, with bigger fish to fry, I let an incomplete turn into an F; sometime before the prof turns emeritus I'll write the paper and he'll submit the A. No one is worried about this, least of all the prof. Eventually the work gets done, the grades get recorded, the mortgage gets paid, the kid's homework gets done.

I've been in & around univerisites most of my life, taught cc, been a grad-student TA. I know when a teacher's phoning it in. All the online courses I've taken through Local University have been good; profs have reasonably high academic rank; obvious care's been taken with prep; profs answer questions well & promptly. Friends who teach online courses do just as cc adjuncts do, and put in far more time and effort than they're being paid for.

As for the "other side of the digital divide", frankly, I don't know what you're talking about. I used to be a UNIX system admin; these days I work on a 4-year-old iBook with a DSL connection, which is more than adequate for my online coursework. I've never had to do so much as install software for a class. My classes involve those antique wonders, books, and allow students to fax or mail in assignments.

Frankly, it is not your responsibility to see that online students finish work. They're adults, and you're not their daddy. If I buy an online class, and then don't manage to take the class, this is my problem. If I enroll, something happens here, and I drop, again, my problem. Not yours. Don't block me from trying again just because the drop rate dismays you and makes you feel inadequate. And don't blame me, either, saying I have "time management" issues. Buddy, if you spent 7-8 hours a day taking care of kids and a house, and another 6-8 working, and then got started on coursework, you'd go verrry slowly and drop courses, too. However, for plenty of us, ain't no other way. So just calm down and be patient. We'll grind through or we won't; either way, you'll get paid, and we know what we're doing better than you do.

Now, if you advertise saying "Learn philosophy while you floss! Ancient Civ in 10 minutes a night!" you've got something to answer for. But every online-class syllabus I've seen stresses that this is indeed a real class that will take significant time.

Bottom line: Please not to protect us from ourselves. We have enough problems already. The grade/completion profile is never going to look like profile for nominal adults with no responsibility for anyone but themselves. Please get used to this idea.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

You raise some very good points, especially when you say that teachers like me shouldn't be paternalistic and that we simply shouldn't expect the grade/completion profile for an online course to be the same as for a regular course.

Some of your other points, though, don't really apply to what I said. If you've been a UNIX sys admin, then you are obviously not on the other side of the digital divide. Nevertheless, the digital divide is real, and a lot of people on the other side of it sign up for online courses anyway. I have students sign up for online courses even though they don't have an internet connection at home.

Also, as a working mother taking courses online, you obviously have to be good at managing your time. You also have been lucky that your institution offers high quality online courses. But again, this is not universally the case.

The most compelling argument you have, though, is that I just shouldn't worry about whether people who sign up for my online courses are together, internet literate people like you, or people who are throwing their money away. You might have a point, but I'm not ready to do that yet. Every administrator worries about drop rates. It is going to take some work to accept the idea that high drop rates don't reflect negatively on the class and institution.

Online courses have a lot of problems. I understand that there are potential solutions to all of them, but it is going to take a lot of work before they are all implemented.

Anonymous said...

"It is going to take some work to accept the idea that high drop rates don't reflect negatively on the class and institution."

And this is the nut of it, isn't it.

So long as universities run on a prestige economy, and so long as high prestige points go only to those institutions which funnel student through prestigious programs, from which they graduate quickly and with good grades, you're going to have a big problem with online courses, and will resist development of them, saying they look bad and pull resources from other programs.

People in my position will still look for online programs, because we haven't any choice. I must work; I must pick up my daughter from school midafternoon; I must be home to receive her when she gets back from after-school daycare. I cannot take most F2F classes. But if real universities take themselves out of online teaching, we will find our way to the online high-school extensions like Phoenix and Kaplan.

The problem with that, by the way, is not that the teachers suck. They don't. They're the same people who, for whatever reason, can't get or don't want t-t or the academic nomad life, but need a job and go adjunct at CCs. What sucks is the administration of the online schools, which are -- like any other business -- dedicated to maximizing the net. Result is that the classes are developed, often by K12 people, in a highly formulaic way that minimizes student complaints, and there's little freedom to teach. (You can teach for real if you teach gifted K12 online -- they want it -- but those kids and their parents will work you like a dog without paying anything commensurate.)

Rob, I understand the point about looking out for the online students who don't know any better, but once again, you're not their dad, they're adults, and you do warn. Also, at this point, it's simple hypocrisy to make "it's a scam" your worry for this particular population. I just looked at what they're doing with tuition these days at my alma mater: $50K for tuition, room, board. $200K for a BA, which at this point is a ticket saying, "Hello, I'm housebroken, and may be able to write a memo that doesn't embarrass your company. Also, I can beat any client at quarters." You want a scam? That's a scam.

Unless the kids are training to be scientists or engineers and need big-money equipment (most of which will have been paid for with federal and corporate grants anyway), most of what they're studying can be learned perfectly well with a combination of library time and experience. Assuming you're not going to be an academic, the courses are useful only in the sense that they prove that you've done the work and (maybe) provide easy connections in the form of the prof.

(What's that? The students would not be able to learn so easily on their own? I'm sure many of them would not. In that case, perhaps the don't belong in academia, and ought to go get jobs. Except they can't, because academia's done a fantastic job of persuading employers to look for "University of" and degrees on resumes, even when the job could be done perfectly well by a middling-bright 14-year-old. Result: Millions of kids spending tens of thousands each on courses they will forget immediately, and employment for PhDs. That is one hell of a racket, and it's why I have nearly always lived in university towns.)

(Tiredly) It sounds like the online trick is to maintain prestige while recognizing the realities of people who do want online. The way to do that is to slice off the chunk of students you don't want -- the poorly prepared, the ones who can't press Start, the ones with disaster lives. So you follow the Texas Tech model: Maintain prestige through admissions criteria, and make admissions competitive, allowing heavily for experience rather than grades (who have you got there capable of assessing a non-academic resume?), and you quietly get very liberal with the time allotted for completion of the courses, as well as with your definition of "reasonable academic progress." You keep that liberality in a special box decorated with prestige ribbons based on the real-world qualifications of the students and their (slow) academic acheivement.

Then you will have a prestigious online program. It will still screw ordinary working people who can't get into a competitive online program, need to go to school, and can't pull a Mork and freeze their families and mortgage bankers for three or four years.

And this is going to be the really tough part, if your concern is for those students rather than your own prestige. You're going to have to deal with their flakiness, their shallowness of prep, their tardiness, all without condescension. (The profs here have done a fantastic job of that.) You cannot for a minute let yourself think, "Oh, this person doesn't belong here, shouldn't be in school, isn't serious; this is a joke." You cannot approach it like these people are trying to prove they're part of the academic world. They aren't. They're taking a class, and how much they get from it is their own business.

Also, frankly, there's more to enrollment in online classes than you seem to be recognizing here. Some of those students are, plain and simple, students. But some of them are there for welfare. Since TANF replaced AFDC, student loans are a replacement for welfare. Impoverished 20-year-old single mother of a toddler and an infant? Become a student, get loans, health insurance, and access to flexible student jobs plus profs/administrators who may take pity on you and help you find a terrific job. Are they serious students? Probably not. Are they throwing away money on their online courses, probably. They're also probably screwing themselves on their transcripts. However, what they buy, by throwing away borrowed money on online courses, is the ability to keep their infants out of the miserable Head Start daycare, keep on breastfeeding, make a bit of money cleaning houses, etc. -- while maintaining the social approval for being students (since being a mother is not enough, esp. single). Most of them look at that and say, "Deal."

Now. You can get indignant here, and protest that this is not what universities are for, that this is the states' problem. You'd be right. However, the fact is that the states have no intention of picking it up. Does the man who wants to protect students from throwing their money away also want to cut off the last major lifeline to these women & kids? I'm guessing no...unless he fears it's a large enough threat to prestige.

Simply another way of saying "It's not your business why they're taking the classes. Assume they have their reasons. If they fail, they fail."

Oh, about the digital-divide thing -- what I'm saying is that I have enough experience to know that very little was required in the way of computer savvy or hardware ownership for the online work I've done. My machine is the equivalent of a 1993 Accord; if you can figure out how your email works, you can take these classes. Here, by the way, we do make accommodation for students who can't afford computers and land lines, and can't get to computer centers -- we have a computer-lend program for student parents, and I believe there's some arrangement made for internet service.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Thanks for you comments anon. You can rest assured that I am not worried about the prestige of my school or my classes in the big academic world. I teach at a community college. My job is to keep the people of Lorain County from sinking into poverty, not to produce future academics. I am used to dealing with flakiness and poor preparation. I get that in my F2F classes. I am not used to 30 to 40% of my students being complete ghosts. People who pay their money, show up on class list, but never appear in class.

Which is why this comment horrified me:

Some of those students are, plain and simple, students. But some of them are there for welfare. Since TANF replaced AFDC, student loans are a replacement for welfare.

I had not thought about this particular effect of Clinton's "the end of welfare as we know it." Replacing aid with large loans that must be paid back is a way to lock people into poverty, not get them out. I mean, this isn't a microlending token loan to start a business. This is serious.

You seem to think that my response to being told I am teaching welfare mothers would be "these people don't belong in college." Far from it. I know my audience, and I believe I can provide them with skills that will enrich their lives. My worry is that I am not helping people, but participating in a program for extracting money from the working poor.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear it, Rob.

I'd say nearly all higher ed is at this point a program for extracting money from the working poor. Have a look at the balance sheets of the Student Loan Corporation, a division of (iirc) Citigroup. It's a massive transfer of wealth across generations in the wrong direction. And universities are all complicit. The only reason we've been able to keep hiking tuitions at this fantastic rate, from state institutions on up, is that admins and regents and boards know the students can reach into endlessly deep pockets. My guess is that cc's have kept out of this largely because they're so often attached to K12, but I don't know.

Some women who head for school loans as welfare are aware of the trap; others (like many traditional students) are not, but underestimate how hard those loans can bite them in the butt later. The sole advantage to these kinds of loans (besides the ease, and the possibility of a useful degree) is that there federal loans have hardship deferments. Of course, that's double-edged, since (again, iirc) interest accrual doesn't stop during deferment. Of course, if they stay broke all their lives, they win, but that's a hell of a bet to make at age 20.

I don't think there's going to be a lot of excitement about policies that support these women better, regardless of who gets in. The costs of real support for a single woman with young children are considerable, and the issue is hedged around with other issues: fairness to parents at economic levels just above; the question of extracting money from the vanished dads without giving the dads incentive to harass the mothers (a serious one, since enough of these guys are violent, drug-addicted, nuts, or all three); the unfortunate propensity of too many of the women to have more babies they can't afford; fights about the value of staying home with children v. daycare; the fact that as a nation, we're flat busted anyhow. I think that unless we become a social democracy -- which I don't see as likely -- or more women take money and power considerably more seriously, these women are more or less on their own.

As for invisible students: I've been one of those. I can recall a time, during a particularly bad period of my husband's disability, when I signed up for a class, realized I'd made a mistake, and near the drop deadline contacted the teacher. She did all she could possibly have done to make it easy for me to drop the class, but I still had to find her office, collect the drop slip, get a dean's signature, and take it to the registrar. Sounds simple, but for me, at the time, it was a trip requiring too much time and energy. I took the F, paid the (R1-level) money, kicked myself, have been more careful since. No complaints. These things will happen sometimes. A few years later I went back and made up the class with someone else.

I think that with online students, you have to assume that their situations are already shakier than those of the students you see F2F, which means it would be very odd indeed if your online students showed up at anything approximating the F2F rate.

You seem to think that my response to being told I am teaching welfare mothers would be "these people don't belong in college."

I was more concerned that your response to being told you might have people who are essentially using you to get student loans in lieu of welfare would be that they don't belong in college. I'd say the truth is they don't. However, they haven't got much else in the way of choices.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

This conversation is just getting more and more depressing.

There are definitely a lot of scams going on in higher education: out of control tuition inflation without clear accounting for where that money goes; textbook prices pushed through the roof by perverse incentives for the people who choose them; division one football and basketball.

Right now it looks like online education is pushed by those who want to add another scam to the list. It doesn't have to be this way. Online education could be a great boon for people in exactly your position. But the forces are lining up to make it a scam.

Most of the things you have mentioned don't change that impression. Your description of the Texas Tech model was grim, but probably accurate (Molly and I used to work there.) The picture of welfare mothers taking out student loans, which they may not be able to repay, for online classes, which they may not complete because no other assistance is available makes me feel like I'm in the payday lending business.

I've been trying to find support to write a free on-line textbook for Intro to Philosophy or Bioethics. Something equivalent to this logic text. I want the people charging $100 for a text out of business. Ohio has a lot of programs to promote educational savings, but they all circle around one way or another to giving administration or the state IP rights over course content.


Anonymous said...

Rob, before you get pissed at the textbook publishers, keep in mind that it's a terrible business. Margins on textbooks run at 18-20%, many of those books are subject to returns (meaning they're not sold until they go home with a customer and stay home; otherwise the publisher's pulping and eating the cost), and most are backlist material at best. You try to accumulate a stable of big producers, like a big biology or econ book, and that pretty much pays for production of the rest. If you take that prop out, you have a problem with finding publishers for academic texts, and you end up with the situation we currently have with literary fiction: Big money for big names and surefire winners, nothing for the rest (except MFA programs, another nifty scam). University presses and monograph publishers have been in trouble for years, and one by one they end up in the hands of outfits like Thomson.

Look at NEH's digital somethingorother program; might be funding there, but I'm guessing you'd need to do something pretty darn fancy.

Are you in the payday loan business? Well, in some ways, yeah, though it's not your fault. If K12 were doing its job instead of playing social worker, there'd be no market for you guys (cc profs) to do so much remedial work, and we wouldn't be paying for kids' education twice. (I've been solicited, btw, to write remedial texts for the cc market; my experience teaching cc confirms they're necessary.) And it wouldn't be plausible to argue that everyone should go to college, because for all the "technology" talk, most of the "technology" (meaning computers) most people will ever run into on the job isn't that tough to learn how to use.

I think it's a much dirtier business once you hit the 4-year colleges. It's always been a remarkable emperor's-clothes business, higher ed, that's served to keep academics humming away at the stuff they happen to like to do. (Again, there's a reason I live in university towns. Academics are very good at pulling in money and making life pleasant and easy.) But the numbers now are like nothing I've ever seen before, and the fear of "not getting into a good school" is...the kids and parents alike get downright feral. I've seen otherwise sane middle-class people taking out second mortgages and borrowing against retirement accounts to _pay money_ to send Tabitha to Swarthmore. I think it's been not just unconscionable, over the last decade or so, but stupid; we can't do well with a bulge of young-to-middle-aged people who come out of the gate so deep in debt they'll never get out. If for no other reason that they'll be so tired, and so conservative and penny-counting, that they won't take risks.

From what you're describing, Ohio is not serious about free college-level ed. If it were, they'd look no further than MIT's OCW, which is fantastically successful, well-produced, and altogether crackerjack. The thing is, though, there's a big difference between wanting a degree and wanting to know something, and the state can't push that; it's got to come from people.

How not to feel miserable? Recall that some people will learn and value it. One of my happiest moments as a teacher was when some bored gum-chewing number told me, distraught and angry, that now that we were reading _Babbitt_ she saw it all around her; another was when a 50something, thoughtlessly racist guy, a good student, stood outside with me -- a kid, really --after class till 11 at night, despite having to be at work driving truck early in the morning, and wrestled with notions of race and group and what was good enough for his daddy. And sometimes there's beauty. For lack of anything better to do with poetry, since I'm not a poet and know nothing about it except that it can be good to read, I had a class read from _Leaves of Grass_ line by line around the room. We had a lot of immigrants, a lot of broken English in a lot of accents, and I was completely unprepared for how gorgeous and American a poem it was, how wonderful it sounded read that way. It knocked me flat. Then there was the class that walked out of exams looking all rubbery but like they'd accomplished something. I trained them out of playing stenographer early on, made it clear I found my own words (appearances to contrary) boring, and that I wanted to know what _they_ thought, then made exams open-everything. They did good.

And some, for better or worse, will remember what you say. Look, the system isn't clean. It doesn't mean there's no good in it. And don't knock the value of something that lets you play for time.