Friday, July 16, 2010

A pain in the ass?

Overheard As I walked across campus week five of the first summer session:

The young man walked his bicycle past the construction zone on campus. As he passed, he said to his classmate walking with him, "I dunno, I just haven't gotten up the drive to post anything to discussions yet. I find the stuff interesting and all but..." he trailed off. The young woman, without looking up, replied "It's a pain in the ass."

OK. Here’s a little context: Posting to Discussions means the students are using the Webcourses technology either as an adjunct technology to a real class or as a means of “delivering services” in an online course (the description provided us by web services in our online training). Either way, if the course was a summer long Session C course, the students were now 5 weeks into it. If they were taking the summer half-term Session A, they were in week 5 of 6. Either way, that’s a bit late to be talking about whether one should “[get] up the drive to post” to a Discussions assignment.

Of course, dealing with Webcourses is a pain in the ass, for certain. It’s flakey on a good day, no doubt in part due to the fact that 54,000 students are trying to crowd into the technological infrastructure designed for the 35,000 students we had just a few years ago. Bigger is not always better.

But Webcourses would be a pain in an ideal infrastructure. It is hard to decipher, loaded with the various security features created by paranoid programmers and their corporate overlords, and prone to fail under heavy use. The grade reporting function is essentially impossible to use. And that’s just the student side. The instructor side is essentially user hostile. It’s “Help” function adds insult to injury. It is a necessary evil that stretches the sense of necessary to the breaking point. Of course, it was ultimately free to the university, the legacy of a free WebCT system given UCF to develop which was subsumed by Blackboard in yet another swallowing of corporate smaller fish by corporate sharks. You do get what you pay for.

But a Discussion post is not that difficult. While flakey and unreliable, Webcourses does provide an HTML editor that works about half the time where one can actually format the posts and preview before posting. There’s even a spell check function though the posts evidence that this function is rarely used by students.

The reality is that the pain in the ass is being required to actually think about the topics one has supposedly read and come up with an intelligent response to the material. In my own classes, I provide students with a series of contextual considerations and some pointed questions (e.g., Given the average voter’s general lack of being informed, is democracy really a good idea?) and a format to follow in writing their posts. A handful write some fairly thoughtful posts and spur their classmates to think about the points they raise. The majority write posts that I would be embarrassed to have appear in public with my name on them due to writing and reasoning deficiencies. But in my current summer classes up to a third of the class simply produce no posts at all. Clearly, it’s such a pain in the ass they can’t even spend the 15 minutes a decent post requires.

But to put this into even sharper focus, consider the fact that a student taking an online course is already excused from attending classes. That means for the average summer term student, they have between three to 10 hours of time each week in which they are not required to actively engage the class materials and their classmates that real classes require. That also means they are spared class activities such as watching and reviewing films, participating in discussions and working in groups.

In my summer courses, I require a 10 minute content quiz daily to insure the students read the materials and stay current with the schedule. There are three exams which are closed book in theory (but which students regularly blurt out that they cheat on) and four formal papers which require about an hours worth of reading and another hour of composing and uploading the paper. That’s the context in which Discussion posts are such a pain in the ass – the ordinary requirements of a class minus anything one might be required to do when attending class.

A little more context: For the past year, I have surveyed students using the Webcourses survey function which allows for anonymous responses. I give students up to 20 participation points to simply complete the survey. I created it to provide some context for the otherwise useless Student Perceptions of Instruction which confuses students for consumers. About 85% of all students come into my classes expecting at least an A-. When queried about the time they devoted to the class, about 3/4 say they spent less than the two hours outside class preparing for each hour in class. And about 80% say the two hour prep time is unrealistic or outrageous. So the entering expectation is that students will make at least an A- in the course but not spend even average reasonably expected prep time engaging it.

I also calculate the time needed for all my course requirements each semester. Even with the slowest reading time as part of the calculation, my course requirements have never exceeded the 2 hours prep/1 hour class barrier. Indeed, in summer courses without a classroom component, students are being asked to meet only 2/3 of the requirements of an ordinary class to begin with. So where is the pain?

I guess I wonder why students even bother to take courses they are not willing to engage even at the most minimal level. Of course, that raises a larger question about whether many of them are really ready to be in college in the first place. However, raising such a question is tantamount to heresy if voiced publicly at a factory process state university. G-d forbid that the professional middle class’ children should not get their middle class bona fides by the cheapest, shortest and easiest means possible.

What’s really a pain in the ass is having to listen to privileged kids with an enormous sense of entitlement whine about minimal requirements in a college class. It’s bad enough to work for a pittance in a professional sweat shop and its overloaded classes with ongoing threats of being cut due to insufficient state funding because we have to give wealthy people tax breaks. And it’s bad enough to work like a Trojan and receive little appreciation for one’s hard work in the process. But to have to endure the whining about Discussion posts, particularly in an online course where students already are relieved of any obligation of engaging a real live classroom, is really beyond the pale.

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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