Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Summer of Their Discontent – Part I

This past summer I tried an experiment. I’ve been teaching the HUM 2210 and 2230 (Humanistic Traditions I and II) courses online each summer for five years now. Summer classes are by definition slacker magnets, particularly online sections. They draw students who think because the class is shorter it won’t require as much. They draw students who think that because the class is online it will be easier. As a result, you get the usual online class denizens – the hung over frat boys who don’t want to have to get up for class, the students who can’t get into any of the classes they need and decide to knock out their GEP requirements online and the graduating seniors who have put off their general education requirements until the very end and who think the course work is beneath their dignity given their newly acquired vocational skills.

In all fairness, this hardly exhausts the possibilities. You always have a small group of students who actually get caught up in the material, wrestle with the questions humanities courses raise and generally perform like actual college students. And there is invariably the one or two working mothers or fathers desperately trying to get the college degree needed for a decent life while juggling child care and work schedules. It’s this latter group of students for whom I have the patience of Job and the utmost of admiration. But, sadly, it’s the former group of students who have increasingly made summer teaching online an experience in the same category with barium enemas.

For the past four summers I have placed a caveat on my homepage regarding these online courses. The link reads “Is this Webcourse the right course for me? (HUM 2211 and HUM 2230) and contains an informal survey asking students to rate their responses to questions such as the following:

7. I am not laboring under the misapprehension that a course taught online is easier or less demanding than a regular face-to-face course. Indeed, I recognize that given the demands on the student to be responsible for meeting the course schedule and managing time with no interaction with the instructor in class, it can be much more difficult.

9. I am particularly adept at managing time, at reading and following directions and acting without assistance from instructors using only a schedule and course modules (particularly critical in summer sessions where 15 weeks course material is covered in a six week session, meaning each class week is the equivalent of 2.5 ordinary class weeks).

In short, I warn students ahead of time that their preconceptions are not on target. I warn them that the online class in which they are enrolling will be an actual course - with all the requirements of a real class - simply taught in online format. And I warn them that, contrary to popular conception and fervent student desires, it will be demanding. Despite such warnings, the classes always fill (even as the face-to-face sections languish and sometimes are cancelled), dominated by the usual suspects – the frat boys, the graduating seniors and the folks working full time jobs over the summer and taking two or more courses.

In what is perhaps a paradox, I have observed that as I have increasingly cut requirements from these summer online courses, the complaining actually increases each time. This is somewhat in line with studies which suggest that students actually want more engagement in online classes - perhaps as a consolation for a recognition after the fact that online courses are often mere shadows of their face-to-face editions - even as they resent having to actually do anything to engage the class.

This past summer, I found myself facing an unprecedented situation of a student using the course email list to run a mutiny among the students. Suggesting that the work load was too high and the feedback too slow (in all fairness, a week and a half can be perceived as a long time in summer sessions), the young man drafted a sample letter to be sent to my chair essentially demanding that I be disciplined. Becoming aware of the mutiny via a student I knew from a real live class who sent me the mass mailed letter, I responded with a point by point refutation to the email that I posted to course news. That effectively ended the mutiny. Upon receiving the form letter, my chair directed the student to meet with me in person and after less than an hour of talking face to face, the student apologized for the incident, said he wished he’d taken this class in a face-to-face section and concluded by saying he would consider taking other classes with me. (So much for the “just as good as regular classes” propaganda from the IT boys.)

Admittedly, this confrontation left a sour taste in my mouth going into the second half of the summer . I was burned out from Summer A and wanted to avoid any more confrontation. I decided to minimize my interactions with the incoming students and cut the Summer B course to a bare bones bottom line which required nothing more than three exams over the three volumes of the text and the four Gordon Rule Papers required by the state. No content quizzes on the chapters, no discussions of material, no posted responses to the Gordon Rule Papers, no group activities or presentations, all of which I have used in real live classes and past online editions of the class. Even as I prepared the syllabus and schedule for what I was calling Humanities Lite, I predicted to my chair and colleagues that the complaints about the course would increase and my evaluations would drop.

Today the truth of those predictions arrived in the form of course evaluations from the summer sessions. As I had predicted, even with the aborted mutiny, the first half of the summer evaluations were much higher and fairer than those of the whittled down second half. Even so, it was not without complaints.

The first half complaints centered primarily around what one student described as “tons and tons of work.” Of course, trying to cram a 15 week semester into 6 will no doubt result in such a perception if an actual class (as opposed to an online class trimmed of any real obligations for students to perform) is being taught. My mutiny leader complained about the “classroom equivalent time” as I had designated it on the schedule to show that students don’t get the class time off, that there were activities designed to simulate the same. Like many online course students, he had decided that no class attendance meant that time was the student’s and could not have any claims made on it by pesky little assignments.

One remarkably transparent comment seemed to sum up the entire thread of complaints: “An online course is about convenience, and having 2 quizzes due at the end of everyday is not convenient.” Of course, a day in a summer session is the equivalent of 2 days of classes in a regular semester. And in all fairness, the rare day when supplementary material (and thus extra credit) quizzes were scheduled was the exception and not the rule. Even so, clearly this course was not convenient enough for this student as she ended her evaluation with “I am never recommending this professor to anyone, or this class.”

Upon reading this comment, all I could think was, “O, thank G-d.” Indeed, at some level, I have come to see the revenge sites like and as doing instructors who actually demand that students engage their classes a great public service. If students are consulting these sites because they want to avoid work and decide against taking a course from me, I think the world will be a happier place for all parties involved. And if workload and convenience was all that was involved, it would be easier to simply do with these evaluations what is most appropriate for all such acontextual and generally meaningless consumerist surveys – look at them briefly, comment upon their novelty and then consign them to the closest recycle bin.

Unfortunately, in an age of educational bureaucratic micromanagement which confuses consumerism with accountability, “evaluations” like this one can become a problem for instructors who consistently prove inconvenient taskmasters. Of course, the problem isn’t the workload or the convenience. After five years of offering courses online, I observe that anytime a teacher actually demands more of students than paying their tuition and coming out with easy three hour As, their convenience-focused, work avoidant consumers will find something to complain about. As I predicted at the end of Summer A going into a stripped down Summer B, even if you only give the minimal three tests and the required four papers, the students will complain about them.

The very first comment from the Summer B evaluations began “There was not one thing I enjoyed about this class” and continued with a critique of workload: “There is an overwhelming amount of reading to retain in a given time period and exams are impossible.” While this student felt “All text chapters were completed ignored…” the following student complained “The test questions were straight from the book, not any of the unnecessary work…the extra Worksheets.” Yet another suggested “describing the kinds of questions to students before giving them the tests to produce a better grade curve.” Of course, tests are always easier when you know the questions ahead of time, no? Indeed, one student suggested “[I]n the ‘real world’ it’s not like you can’t open a book to reference something you are unsure about.” Why bother with tests at all, right? Just give a worksheet to fill in the blanks.

As I had predicted, if all you assign is tests and papers, the students will complain about them.

Ironically, the “extra Worksheets” for each chapter referenced here were designed to develop each artifact and piece of literature with questions about them. The questions ask students to consider “What might this sculpture suggest about how the Greeks saw men v. women?” and “Where do you see ideas like this in the world around you?” I provide the worksheets as study guides for the exams. I neither collect nor grade them.

Study after study suggests that actually understanding an artifact results in a greater tendency to remember it than mere memorization of the artifact and its maker followed by regurgitation of data from one’s short term memory and nearly instantly forgetting the same. And study after study suggests that if students can connect material being learned to their own lives, they are more likely to remember it. Of course, such concerns don’t fare well in a world driven by consumer convenience and the desire to avoid “an overwhelming amount of work,” even when it only involved three tests and four required papers, the least workload I have ever assigned in any college class I have ever taught anywhere.

One final thought on all this. The student who had taken a real live class with me previously wrote the following in her evaluation: “This course really shouldn’t be offered online. Too much is lost in translation. Dr. Coverston is a stellar professor who truly cares about the transfer of knowledge and engaging education.”

I must say I agree with her initial assertions and I can only hope her final complimentary statement is true. In reality, Humanistic Traditions courses do translate poorly to online format. Art takes time to download as some of the complaints about testing suggested (particularly when taken during the 11:00 pm to midnight witching hour of all online courses when the UCF system slows to a crawl due to overuse). The concepts that these courses consider do not translate well to asynchronous discussion or written comments read in the absence of the commenter. Tests with artificial time constraints to discourage the ability to cheat (Are you listening, FSU athletic department?) require a focus on technological means rather than pedagogical ends. These are valid concerns and have been raised by a number of instructors repeatedly.

However, when the concerns that give rise to online courses are administrative (translation: monetary) rather than pedagogical, it should not be surprising that online courses end up as a dumping ground for the excess students admitted into an already overtaxed system ill-prepared to handle the onslaught. Online classes become the solution to shortage of classroom space problems. Thus one pathology gives rise to another as instructors teaching online try to adapt pedagogy and content to the realities of online courses: minimalist content and requirements driven by consumerist entitlement. The result? Low to none-existent workloads, quizzes which test little more than the ability of students to actually crack their texts long enough to look up answer, and the occasional discussion requirement which produces a slew of posts beginning “I just feel…” with little of substance thereafter. Those who seek to do more than that minimum face stiff resistance, whine-filled evaluations and the occasional mutiny. There is much to be said about such realities. Little has anything to do with education.

A second post follows.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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